Silver Bridge Disaster

Charleston Gazette
December 16, 1967

Pt. Pleasant Span Collapses, 70 Vehicles Plunge Into River

5 Bodies Recovered, Giant Toll Feared

By George Steele
Staff Writer

POINT PLEASANT - The collapse of a towering suspension bridge over the Ohio River here Friday plunged an estimated 60 to 70 vehicles into the cold waters and sent an untold number of persons to their deaths.

Hours later only five bodies had been recovered but astounded officials were certain the death toll would soar.

Only five of the scores of motorists who were atop the 1,750-foot span when it crashed into the murky waters during rush hour traffic at 4:55 p.m. were able to extricate themselves from submerged vehicles and make their way to safety.

On the Ohio side, about 250 feet of the loaded bridge crashed onto land. Four persons on this part of the bridge were killed, and eight injured were pulled out of the tangled steel.

A flotilla of riverboats with high powered search lights were recruited into the rescue operations, along with small craft and a Civil Defense army duck.

Most of the rescue operations, in fact, were taking place at Kanauga, Ohio. A barge with a crane tried once to pull a car from the clutches of the river near the Ohio bank, but it came up with only a front bumper and suspension assembly.

Early rescue activity centered on the Ohio side because the vehicles smashed by the bridge wreckage there were more accessible than those obviously strewn along the bottom of the river.

One tractor - trailer that plunged into the water apparently was empty because onlookers watched it slowly float down river.

Most of the bridge's superstructure was hidden beneath the water. In midstream only the concrete piers remained as stark evidence of the total collapse of the structure.

Witnesses said the bridge bent sharply to the north, spilling its contents into the river, then groaning, went down in slow-motion on top of the sinking vehicles, apparently crushing many of them against the river bottom.

Ambulances and rescue units from towns and communities on both sides of the river sped to the scene. They came from as far away as Charleston.

A man who said he was on the bridge's approach ramp when it collapsed, said traffic was moving slowly and the two-lane span seemed to be packed with cars.

He said it was always full at that time of the evening. There was some talk among spectators similar to: "I wonder if Sam was on the bridge."

Mason County Civil Defense Director John A. Wilson said it will probably be days before authorities learn how many persons perished in the startling accident.

He said his wife was only two blocks from the structure and saw it fall. She was in her car waiting for traffic to move so she could cross into Ohio.

Amateur photographers flocked to the scene, some waiting helplessly in the dark for some miracle to happen so they wouldn't need a flash.

Firemen were shuttled back and forth across the river to confer during the early part of the evening.

At about 7:30 p.m., Gallia, Ohio, County Prosecutor John Epling crossed to West Virginia to begin organizing a cooperative recovery operation between the two states.

Later in the evening, Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes and West Virginia Gov. Smith arrived at the disaster scene. At about 10:30 p.m., officials agreed to stop operations until daylight.

Some officials at the scene expressed the fear the death toll would near 200 and become one of the greatest river disasters in history.

As one official pointed out most of the cars obviously had more than one passenger.

The official, who refused to be quoted, feared that it would be weeks before all the bodies could be recovered since the swift current would carry many far downstream. Lowell R. Bridwell, the federal highway commissioner, immediately announced from Washington that he was sending a team of investigators to the area today.

Both West Virgima Gov. Smith and Ohio Gov. Rhodes expressed shock at the extent of the catastrophe.

After a joint inspection trip, Gov. Smith issued the following statement to the press: "Gov. Rhodes and I have just completed a meeting at state poIice headquaters in Point Pleasant coordinating the efforts of the agencies of both states to alleviate the suffering and to commence the recovery operations at the Silver Bridge. "It was a terrible tragedy, and of course at this time our prayers and hopes go out to those who have suffered under this tragedy, particularly at Christmas time. "We have directed our road commissioners to commence an investigation to determine the cause. We have alerted all of the necessary agencies of state government who are on the scene tonight already taking charge of their respective duties under our emergency operations."

Meanwhile newspaper offices and radio stations were flooded with calls from anxious persons seeking news of overdue relatives and members of their families.

Here is the list of known dead:

George McManus, a trucker from South Point, Ohio; Cecil Counts and Melvin Cantrell, both of Gallipolis Ferry; Leo Blackman, a trucker from Richmond, Va.; and an identified woman.

Injured are:

1. Howard Boggs, 24, Bidwell, Ohio; Pleasant Valley Hospital, Point Pleasant, cuts and bruises.

2. Paul Scott, Middleport, Ohio; Pleasant Valley Hospital, not critical.

3. William Edmondson, 38, King, N. C.; Pleasant Valley Hospital, broken arm and cuts.

4. William Frank Wamsley, 28, Point Pleasant; Pleasant Valley Hospital, not critical.

5. William Needham Jr., 27, Ashboro, N. C.; Pleasant Valley Hospital, back fracture, not critical.

6. Samuel F. Ellis, 29, Winston-Salem, N. C.; Holzer Hospital, Gallipolis, Ohio, multiple face and head cuts; satisfactory condition.

7. Frank Nunn, 27, Greenville, N. C.; Holzer Hospital, back fracture, satisfactory condition.

8. Mrs. Margaret Cantrell, 35, Gallipolis Ferry, wife of the dead Melvin Cantrell; Holzer Hospital, shock.

9. John Fishel, Petersburg, Va.; Holzer Hospital, leg and foot burns.

All Possible Help Pushed By Governor

By John G. Morgan
Staff Writer

The news of the Ohio River disaster reached Gov. Hulett C. Smith about 5:30 p.m. Friday while he was attending a meeting of a 14-county citizens groups seeking reforms in the State Road Commission.

Deeply concerned Paul Crabtree. Smith's executive assistant and a resident of Point Pleasant, interrupted the meeting to tell the Governor about the collapse of the Silver Bridge.

One of Smith's first comments was: "We have got to find a way to get the cars out of the river." He said he and his staff would seek all possible help from state police, civil defense units, the National Guard, the Coast Guard and the Corps of Engineers.

State Road Commissioner Burl A. Sawyers said he had "no theory at the moment" on what may have caused the bridge to collapse. He added that one of the most important things now facing the SRC is to "start planning for replacement" of the bridge.

"I don't know the extent of the damage, but it is a very serious emergency," said Sawyers. "We will have to make an analysis."

Smith quickly went into conference with Sawyers and other top SRC staff officials who were at the citizens meeting. Later, Smith, Sawyers and some of the officials went to Point Pleasant.

The Silver Bridge was built as a two-lane toll facility by the General Corp. and American Bridge Co. in 1928. The gleaming structure was hailed as an excellent engineering achievement. Residents of West Virginia and Ohio were proud to drive over it.

The additional statistics about the bridge were released by the SRC:

It was an I-bar suspension type brid[g]e, measuring 1,750 feet in total length. The state bought it from the bridge company on Dec. 26, 1941. The structure was made a toll-free facility on Dec. 18, 1951.

'Now I Know What It's Like to Drown'

Truck Driver Survives Tragedy

By Sandra Grant
Staff Writer

POINT PLEASANT - "Now I know what it's like to drown. I expected to die," said Bill Needham, a 27-year-old truck driver from Kernersville, N. C.

Needham was one of the survivors of the tragic plunge of the "Silver Bridge" into the Ohio River Friday at Point Pleasant carrying untold numbers of hapless motorists to their deaths.

A patient in Pleasant Valley Hospital here with a broken back, Needham thinks his truck driving partner is dead.

"He was in the sleeping berth in the rear of the cab," Needham said from his hospital bed, "and I think he had strapped himself in. He had no chance. The cab went all the way to the bottom."

Neadhani said he was still pinned inside the cab when it went under water and ''was running out of breath when I noticed a little crack in the window and finally forced it down - I managed to grab a box and hang on."

How[a]rd Boggs, 24, of Gallipolis, Ohio, also a patient in the same hospital with cuts and bruises, fears he lost his wife, Marjorie and 17-month- old daughter in the plunge.

Boggs said he and his small family were returning to their home after visiting relatives in West Virginia when they became stalled in traffic on the bridge.

"My wife noticed the bridge was quivering," he related tearfully, "and asked what would we do if this thing broke. Then, suddenly it broke and we went down."

Boggs said he and his wife had just finished buying Christmas presents for the little girl.

Bill Edmondson, a 38-year- old Hennis Freight Lines driver from King, N. C., said he apparently also lost his partner to the water.

"The thing went down so fast I don't know how I got out of the cab," recalled Edmondson who was admitted to the same hospital with a broken right arm and head cuts.

"I was starting down the Ohio side of the bridge when it suddenly started falling sideways. I didn't hear any noise or anything.

"When I got in the water I got hold of a seat and that was all that kept me up until they pulled me out."

Edmondson, who figures he was in the water at "least 10 minutes before he was pulled into a motorboat, said he looked into his rear mirror as he inched across the span and saw the bridge "loaded bumper to bumper with traffic as far back as I could see."

After he surfaced, Edmondson said, he could see only one other person swimming in the water.

Other survivors at this small, overworked hospital were either too dazed to recall what happened or under heavy sedation.

One man, Frank Wamsley of Point Pleasant, just shook his head when approached for comment.

Another of the injured, who was pulled from the water by a passing tow boat was Paul Scott of Ohio. He likewise had no comment.


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