Town remembers tragedy 40 years later

Published 12:16 am Sunday, December 16, 2007

It took less than 30 seconds for the Silver Bridge to tumble into the Ohio River, killing 46 people and leaving towns on either side stunned and bereft. Stephen Darst, who saw it happen 40 years ago Saturday, has relived that half-minute countless times.

“It sounded like a jet airplane,” he recalled, looking out at the river. “I had nightmares for a long time after that.”

Like most Point Pleasant residents old enough to remember that day, Darst, now 70, has vivid recollections of Dec. 15, 1967. He not only saw the bridge fall but had driven across it hours before, and he remembers a feeling of unease.

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A traffic light had been malfunctioning all day, causing cars and trucks to back up on the bridge, which had linked Point Pleasant and Kanauga, Ohio, since 1928. Darst said he felt anxious waiting in traffic and eventually pulled out and sped off the bridge by driving in the opposite lane. “I could feel something was wrong. Something was in the air,” he said.

Of the 46 who died in the collapse, 22 were from Ohio and 19 were from West Virginia, including 15 from Point Pleasant. The others were from Virginia and North Carolina.

Today, there’s almost nothing to indicate where the bridge once stood. A small plaque marks the spot on Main Street where a ramp brought motorists onto the bridge, but the ramp itself is long gone.

The Point Pleasant River Museum, a few blocks from the old bridge, is working to make sure that absence doesn’t extend to the town’s collective memory.

The museum is trying to convince everyone who remembers the collapse, one of the country’s worst-ever bridge disasters, to share their recollections in videotaped interviews that will be archived for residents and historians.

“We’re kind of the focus for the remembrance of it,” said Jack Fowler, executive director of the museum. “We decided we really needed to have these archived at the museum.”

This month, the museum is exhibiting dozens of rare photographs of the disaster, along with debris from the collapse. Among the stark images and pieces of gnarled metal, a steady stream of residents have been interviewed about their memories.

Bob Rimmey was at a cab stand in front of the Mason County Courthouse, about 250 feet from the bridge.

“I heard a real loud screeching noise, and then it just disappeared,” he said. “Then everybody was screaming. All you could hear was screaming.”

Rimmey and a state trooper helped a pregnant woman from her car, which was precariously close to the edge of the fallen span. One of his close friends, cab driver Leo “Doc” Sanders, died in the collapse.

This year the memories are especially sharp. On Aug. 1, for reasons that remain under investigation, the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 and injuring about 100.

Even after 40 years, residents here understood too well the shock felt around the country.

The Silver Bridge collapsed when a crucial joint, worn by years of corrosion and neglect, snapped, allowing the vibrations of rush-hour traffic to shake the bridge to pieces.

In 1969, a new span, the Silver Memorial Bridge, opened downstream, routing traffic away from downtown.

President Lyndon 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, which mandated inspections at least every two years. Federal Highway Administration data shows that more than 70,000 bridges nationwide — about 12 percent of the 596,808 total — are “structurally deficient,” but the agency says this doesn’t mean they are in imminent danger of collapse.