A Plant Grows Near the 'Burgh

W.Va. Museum Recording Memories of Silver Bridge Disaster

Fri December 28, 2007 - Northeast Edition
Tom Breen - ASSOCIATED PRESS



POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. (AP) 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 Dec. 15, 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 has vivid recollections of Dec. 15, 1967. He not only saw the bridge fall but had driven across it hours before — and remembers a feeling of unease.

A traffic light had been malfunctioning all day, causing cars and trucks to back up on the bridge. Darst felt anxious waiting in traffic and eventually pulled out and sped off the bridge by driving in the opposite lane.

“I just didn’t like it, you know what I mean?’’ he asked, rubbing his forearms to show that the hair on them was standing up that day. “I could feel something was wrong. Something was in the air.’’

Today, there’s almost nothing to indicate where the bridge — which had linked Point Pleasant and Kanauga, Ohio, since 1928 — 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.’’

In December, 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, approximately 250 ft. 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.

To this day, Rimmey doesn’t like to talk about it. He tries to avoid the questions that come up during anniversaries.

“And if I get on a bridge anywhere and I get stopped, I get nervous,’’ he said.

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 approximately 100.

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

“That brought it all back,’’ said Rimmey.

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.

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

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 — approximately 12 percent of the 596,808 total — are “structurally deficient,’’ but the agency said this doesn’t mean they are in imminent danger of collapse.

Following the Minneapolis accident, the West Virginia Department of Transportation inspected 20 bridges that are similar in design and construction and found them to be in good shape.

Residents here say they’re glad the Silver Bridge disaster led to stricter safety guidelines. But they still suffer from the sudden loss of friends and loved ones, and from the potent shock that such a thing could happen.

“It was something that had been there all your life,’’ said Fowler. “And then, it was just gone.’’