25 Years Later, Bridge Collapse Still Haunts W. Va. Town
December 13, 1992
25 Years Later, Bridge Collapse Still Haunts W. Va. Town
POINT PLEASANT (AP) - Bill McCormick cannot forget the wrenching sound of twisting steel and the heart-stopping sight across the Ohio River when the Silver Bridge fell down 25 years ago.
McCormick, Odell Hysell and others were working on a cold fuel dock on Dec. 15, 1967, not far from the two-lane suspension bridge connecting Ohio and West Virginia, about 35 miles northwest of Charleston.
The men dashed for their boats, gunned their diesel engines and sped toward the wash of sinking cars, tractor-trailers and collapsed metal. The river was a body-numbing 43 degrees.
"When we went out, we saw two men hanging on to their truck and debris. I tried to pull in one and Odell tried to pull in another," McCormick said. "It was very cold. In fact, the last fellow we pulled in, a [tow boat] captain for the Ohio River Co., said that if we hadn't gotten there when we did, he couldn't have held on."
The collapse of the U.S. 35 bridge between Point Pleasant and Kanauga, Ohio, killed 46 motorists.
It was also a turning point in the way American engineers think of bridges, according to Lisle Williams of Pittsburgh, a bridge designer and chairman of next year's International Bridge Conference.
"The Silver Bridge was one of about 550,000 bridges across the country that basically received no attention once they were constructed," he said. "Once they were put up, people kind of thought they'd be there forever."
After years of corrosion and neglect, a crucial joint in the 39-year-old bridge's suspension system snapped and the normal vibrations of heavy rush-hour traffic shook it apart. Dozens of cars and trucks followed the structure into the river.
"You need a catastrophic failure prior to gaining everybody's attention," Williams said.
Some fear it could happen again.
"There have been some changes, but I wouldn't say that it was particularly any better now," said Henry Jasny, attorney for the Ralph Nader-affiliated Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety in Washington, D.C.
"I'd say that the odds of such a collapse today are equal," Jasny said.
Since the Silver Bridge disaster, new federal standards require bridge inspections every two years. But, Jasny said, the quality of inspections varies from state to state.
For example, he said, a 100-foot section of the Interstate 95 bridge over the Mianus River in Connecticut collapsed in June 1983, killing three people. Investigators blamed the collapse on corrosion.
A survey of state engineers in the November's Better Roads magazine showed that 34 percent, or 206,904 bridges of the nation's approximately 600,750 bridges are substandard.
The survey showed 55 percent of bridges are substandard in West Virginia and Massachusetts, the worst states, with 3,556 bridges and 2,788 bridges substandard, respectively.
Mississippi and Maine, each with 51 percent, and Hawaii, 50 percent, also had more than half of their bridges rated substandard, according to the survey.
But the survey showed the best state is Arizona, with 7 percent, or 417 bridges, substandard.
States with less than 20 percent of substandard bridges are Idaho, 10 percent; Nevada, 11 percent; Wyoming and Utah, each with 12 percent; Connecticut, 15 percent; and California, 19 percent, according to the survey.
Thomas Zimmie, a professor of civil engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., said bridge inspections have improved in the past five years.
"They've really gotten their act together," he said. "You've got companies here that do nothing but bridge inspections."
Zimmie helped investigate the April 1987 collapse of the Schoharie Creek Bridge on the New York State Thruway near Albany. Ten people died when, Zimmie said, a flood undermined the bridge supports, a phenomenon called "scour."
Zimmie agreed hazards can go unnoticed and unsuspected until disaster strikes.
"There's always going to be something that pops up," he said. "Who could have predicted 'scour'?"
The 1,750-foot Silver Bridge, opened in 1928 and named for the color of its aluminum-based paint, was different from familiar suspension bridges like the Golden Gate in San Francisco and the Brooklyn and Verrazano-Narrows in New York.
Instead of relying upon massive spun cables for support, the Silver Bridge's roadway hung from carbon-steel chains, which, in turn, were supported by two towers and were anchored on either shore.
Officials said about 6,600 vehicles used the bridge daily. It had no load limit.
According to a National Transportation Safety Board report, a joint in the chain supporting the roadway snapped just outside the bridge's Ohio-side tower.
Traffic vibrations and the weight of the deck and the 37 vehicles on it, including two gravel trucks and five tractor-trailer rigs, pulled down on the Ohio-side chains and toppled the Ohio tower, according to the report.
The collapse then toppled the West Virginia tower and pulled the rest of the bridge into the river, according to the report.
Only the bridge's West Virginia approach and four piers remained standing.
The board found that the Silver Bridge had not been thoroughly inspected for 16 years. Since then, it said, the chains were inspected only from the bridge deck by road workers using binoculars.
"Evidence of severe corrosion was found in many portions of the bridge structure," the report said. "Periodic complete inspections would have furnished much more detailed information to the state concerning the condition of all vital parts of the bridge."
Paul Wedge, an official with the Boilermakers' union and former president of the Mason County school board, died with his wife in the disaster.
Son Jimmy Joe Wedge, later Point Pleasant's mayor, was coaching the Point Pleasant High School basketball team and was expecting his parents at the game.
"The longer the game went on, the harder it got to focus on it, I guarantee you that," he said.
John A. Wilson, then Mason County's Civil Defense director, ordered all roads into Point Pleasant blocked to keep out spectators. Wilson, now 77, recalled his move outraged at least one merchant who complained of the effect on his Christmas sales.
The Ohio River was reopened to barge traffic 36 hours after the collapse, but bodies continued to be recovered as late as the end of January 1968.
Wilson's voice still trembles when he recalls a man who escaped his car but his wife and child did not. He remembered a brother of a dead man who came to remove gifts from the wreckage of a car to assure the surviving family some sort of Christmas.
"Every time I pass that site, I think about it," Wilson said.
President Johnson declared an emergency the day of the collapse. Four days later. Sen. Jennings Randolph, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Public Works Committee, announced hearings that led to the first federal bridge inspection requirements.
The Ohio River bridge at St. Marys, W.Va., which was of similar design and vintage to the Silver Bridge, was closed immediately, never to reopen.
The Silver Bridge made the intersection of Main and Sixth streets one of the busiest in Point Pleasant. Today, it is so quiet that cars park in the middle of Sixth Street.
Exactly two years after the collapse, a new Ohio River bridge was opened between Mason County, W.Va., and Gallia County, Ohio The 1,800-foot, four-lane Silver Memorial Bridge was built just south of Point Pleasant of a rigid cantilever-truss design.
Point Pleasant had a thriving downtown and was home to 5,800 residents. Today, bypassed, Point Pleasant's downtown is still trying to recover from the loss of traffic, and the town's population is down to about 5,000.
"It's not just the personal impact, but the overall impact on the community, the county and our immediate area. Our economy has never recovered," Wilson said.
A simple monument stands where the West Virginia approach to the bridge used to be. Set in a concrete semicircle, red bricks are inscribed with the names of the 46 people who died on the bridge.