Build it up with iron and steel,
Iron and steel, iron and steel,
Build it up with iron and steel,
My fair lady.
Iron and steel will bend and bow,
Bend and bow, bend and bow,
Iron and steel will bend and bow,
My fair lady.
...from the nursery rhyme "London Bridge is Falling Down"
Bridges have always made me a bit nervous. For me, they have always required a leap of faith. A leap which begins as you first drive onto one and doesn't end until you reach the other side. Many are quite pleasant to look at, but I don't enjoy driving across them. In fact, I must confess that I almost always unbuckle my seat belt when I do drive across one. While they don't give me terrors, there is a word for this particular fear: gephyrophobia.
On December 14 of this past year, when a disturbed young man opened fire in a school in Newtown, Connecticutt, killing 26 people, the tragedy was only compounded by the timing...just 2 weeks before Christmas. Something nagged at the back of my mind as the story unfolded. A sense of deja vu. It took awhile to recall what was trying to bubble up to the surface, but finally it did. It was almost 45 years to the day that an even more tragic event occurred, on December 15, 1967. On that day it wasn't a deranged shooter that was responsible for the horror which unfolded.
It was metal fatigue.
These days we often use crumbling bridges as a metaphor for the state of our country as a whole. Neglect. Lack of diligence. Lack of investment. An indifference to the future. But when a bridge fails...when it suddenly and violently fails, it is no metaphor. It is a stark reality. People die, and for those who survive, or who narrowly escape the event, lives are permanently altered.
On December 15, 1967, at around 5:00 PM in the evening, many lives were changed. An 46 souls were lost.
Leo "Doc" Saunders was a cab driver in Point Pleasant. Around 4:30 PM that day he got a call to pick up a fare in Gallipolis. He was crossing the bridge on his way to pick up his fare when he got bogged down in heavy traffic somewhere around the halfway mark. Traffic was heavy, and it had become stop and go.
Charlene Wood worked at a hair salon in Point Pleasant, where her parents lived, but lived in Gallipolis. She was 5 months pregnant when the light turned green and she eased her Pontiac out onto the ramp of the WV side of the bridge to go home. She hadn't gone far until she felt the bridge begin to shudder. She slammed her car into reverse and hit the gas. She made it just back to the ramp when her car stalled.
Glenna Mae Taylor was also pregnant, due to the deliver within 3 weeks. She and her husband, both school teachers, had spent the afternoon shopping in Gallipolis and were on her way home.
Bob and Pat Siler, also of Point Pleasant, had also spent the afternoon on the Ohio side, and were heading home with their two youngest kids. When they got stuck in the middle of the bridge in the stop and go traffic, they felt the car begin to shudder a bit, and thinking it was their kids rough housing in the back seat, she turned around and scolded them to settle down. The shuddering stopped...the traffic began to move and as they made it to the other side they passed two cars of neighbors heading onto the bridge in the opposite direction. They honked their horn and waved at the Wedges and the Byuses as they passed them by. The Silers were safely off the bridge when it began to shake again.
Another young couple, Howard and Margaret Boggs, were on their way home after buying Christmas presents for their 17 month old baby, who they had taken along with them. They, too, had come to a stop when Margaret, just 18 and at the wheel, felt the car begin to shake. She looked at her husband and said "What would we do if this thing were to break up?"
Those were the last words she ever spoke, her husband later recalled, after he was pulled from the water and taken to the hospital.
The Silver Bridge, as it was known, spanned the Ohio River between the towns of Gallipolis, Ohio, and Point Pleasant, West Virginia. While the bridge formed a vital link between the two towns, the connections between ran deeper. Many people on one side of the river had family members living on the other side. Friends. They often lived on one side and worked on the other, ran errands on the other. The bridge was the physical link that facilitated those bonds, and had allowed the two river towns to function as one community from the time it was built in 1928.
In retrospect, the design chosen by the American Bridge Company was a poor one, and only two were made using the single link eyebar chain suspension that supported the weight of the bridge. The second bridge was just a few miles upriver at St Marys, WV. An eyebar is a long steel plate, shaped somewhat like a dogbone, which is coupled to an identical eyebar with steel pins. Think of a bicycle chain. Most suspension bridges used steel cables. In the day it was built, however, the bridge design met all of the criteria of the American Society of Civil Engineers. It also should be noted that in 1928, the typical car was a Model T Ford, weighing 1,500 lbs. In 1967 the avg passenger car weighed 4,000 lbs, and a fully loaded semi truck could weigh 60,000 lbs.
A second flaw was in the approach to the bridge on the West Virginia side. Motorists crossing the bridge coming into Point Pleasant were faced with a traffic light almost immediately, which held up traffic on the bridge whenever it turned red. At approximately 4:50 PM on Dec 15, the light in town turned red, bringing southbound traffic to a stop. There were 37 vehicles on the bridge, of which at least 4 were semi trailers.
Point Pleasant resident Bob Rimmey was sitting in his parked car downtown, in front of the court house, when he heard a loud crack. He looked around quickly to see what it was, thinking it was something nearby. He looked up and saw the Silver Bridge in the distance begin to sway, watched as first one tower fell down, then the other, and finally saw the whole thing pitch over to one side and fall into the river. He and a trooper immediately rushed to the on ramp of the bridge.
In one newspaper account a witness described the scene:
'It didn’t just fall into the river,’ said a coal truck driver who witnessed the scene. ‘It sort of slithered like a snake, then it buckled and cars began falling off sideways.'H.L. Whobrey was selling Christmas trees at the exit from the bridge on the WV side, and saw the whole thing happen up close:
I saw three to four people swimming around in the water, screaming. I couldn’t do anything. I just stood there and watched ...I saw this car float past. It looked like there were people inside beating their hands on the windows.” The last car to get off the bridge in one piece came to a stop in his Christmas tree lot, and the man inside vomited.When Bob Rimmey and the trooper got there, they saw Charlene Wood sitting in her car in a state of shock, her hands frozen to the steering wheel. The bridge had sheared of just 4 feet in front of her bumper. They helped her out and got her to solid ground. $ months later she would give birth to twins.
On the other side of the bridge, Betty and James Fowler were almost over the bridge when they felt it begin to shudder and sway. She stepped on the gas but they were still about about 15 feet shy of where the bridge broke off on the Ohio side. They had four other passengers in their car when it dropped some 20 feet onto the shore below. None of them were hurt.
Howard Boggs managed to climb out of the shattered passenger window of their car when it hit the bottom of the 30 ft deep river channel. He remembered his feet touching the bottom and kicking himself up towards the surface. He was pulled out of the 42 degree water downstream by a boat. His wife and baby didn't make it. Their car was finally dragged out of the river almost 6 weeks later, completely crushed.
A big reason so few people survived the fall into the river was that, before they could escape from inside their cars, the whole bridge collapsed right on top of them, crushing the cars down into the muddy river bottom. By the time first responders began arriving, it was already dark. Divers had to use deep sea equipment to look for possible survivors trapped at the bottom of the frigid river, but around 10:00 the search was called off. It was too dark, visibility was near zero do to the sedimentation that had been roiled up, and the current made it dangerous with all of the jagged metal underwater.
For the next several weeks it became a dragging and dredging operation, and cars and bodies turned up one, two or more at a time, prolonging the tragedy for those affected who had lost friends and loved ones. Doc Saunders' body was finally recovered on what would have been his 43rd birthday. Two bodies never were recovered.
One of the stories I vividly remember making the rounds where I grew up (about 30 miles northwest of Gallipolis) was about how several of the rescue/recovery divers refused to make any further dives after encountering huge catfish on the bottom. The stories went that some of the catfish were so big that they could swallow a 7 yr old child. Those rumors were especially ghoulish to an 11 year old such as myself. In reading all of the newspaper accounts I could find on the event, however, I have never come across any mention of this in print. If you google "Silver Bridge Collapse" and "huge catfish", however, you will see that there are many, many references to those stories. Obviously they were pretty widespread.
The NTSB, of course, conducted an exhaustive forensic examination of the cause of the bridge collapse. One of their key findings was that it was a single eyebar that gave way, due to a small fissure on one end that was about 1/10th of an inch deep. It could well have been an imperfection that existed at the time it was forged by United Steel prior to the construction of the bridge. Over time, corrosion had sufficiently weakened that one member that it finally broke, shearing one of the pins that held the chain link together. As soon as that one link failed the fate of the entire bridge was sealed. The entire structure was completely dependent up every component which comprised it.
When that eyebar failed it created an asymmetric tension one one side of the spans leading up to the rocker towers. That pulled the rocker tower to one side, creating unequal tension on the other side as well. The tower twisted, turned and collapsed, causing a domino effect along the rest of the bridge. It was also determined that the original design was insufficient to withstand the weight of the modern vehicles and truck traffic that regularly crossed over the bridge. The other bridge of the same design, at St Marys WV, was ordered demolished soon afterwards as a precaution.
Another issue that came to light was just how sporadic and inadequate the inspection regime for this, and by extension almost every other bridge, had been. The federal government, of course, was alarmed and chastened by this revelation, and the Silver Bridge disaster is credited with ushering in regulatory changes requiring regular and thorough inspections of bridges in the U.S. There were the official vows of "never again."
But there have been several bridge failures since then, as we all know...the most recent being the I-35 bridge collapse 5 years ago in Minneapolis. There are a shocking number of bridges throughout the country that inspectors have deemed "insufficient", but which remain open for traffic.
Ever since hearing stories about the collapse of the Silver Bridge as an 11 year old, and reading all of the articles my grandmother had clipped and placed into her scrap book, driving over a bridge has made me just a little uneasy. I always have, if only for a brief moment, a morbid thought of "what if it falls before I get to the other side?" When I read the account of one trucker who plunged into the river but survived, while his partner, who was sleeping in the back of the cab and was strapped in for safety, perished...I have been loathe to wear a seat belt when on a bridge. And I always feel a slight sensation of relief as soon as I make it to the other end of the bridge.
Here is a video I found that does a decent job of explaining the structural components of the bridge, and how it failed:
Here's a link to the Charleston Gazette's newspaper edition of the following day: