From Ten Ohio Disasters, by Neil Zurcher
It was a Christmastime nightmare.
December 15, 1967, just ten days until Christmas. It was early evening, and the streets in this small Southern Ohio community were crowded. Families were Christmas shopping, and it was also the end of the workday, so many people were headed home.
Kanauga, Ohio, is just a dot on the map. A tiny, unincorporated community outside the county seat of Gallipolis that sits on the bank of the Ohio River, across from Point Pleasant, West Virginia.
A 1,750-foot-long bridge carried people and material across the deep waters of the Ohio River between the two states. It was called the Silver Bridge because of its paint job. Built in 1928, it was a unique eye-bar chain suspension bridge, strung from towers on both sides of the river. It soared 102 feet above the river’s surface.
The span had been built to carry US Route 35 across the river.
That evening it was bumper-to-bumper traffic on the bridge as cars and trucks hurried home from work or a day of Christmas shopping.
Then, at about 5 p.m., the unthinkable happened.
Charlene Foster, who lived in Kanauga on the edge of the river, in sight of the bridge, told the Gallipolis Daily Tribune that she was preparing dinner in the kitchen of her home when her two sons suddenly screamed, “Mommy! Mommy! The bridge is in the water.” She looked toward the bridge, and “It was just like a snake slithering down into the water. It seemed to go down in slow-motion.”
Ann Davis, who worked in a beverage store near the bridge, was watching the heavy traffic cross the bridge when she heard a large boom. She told the Plain Dealer that it sounded like a sonic boom, and then “the bridge started to crumple and sink like a set of dominoes falling. Cars were being crushed like toys in the girders.”
It took just twenty seconds for the entire bridge to fall into the river.
Cecil Newell, 24, worked as an orderly at Holzer Hospital in Gallipolis. The Plain Dealer reported that he was on the West Virginia side of the river, headed for work and only two car-lengths from getting on the bridge when the structure collapsed in front of him. “The car started vibrating, there was an awful noise, I went out and looked. There were all kinds of cars floating, then everything was so quiet, like nothing had happened, but I knew I had seen it. People were down there in the water.”
Charlene Clark Wood of Gallipolis had just finished the day working at a hair salon. She was pregnant and tired. She had driven across the bridge to check on her parents who lived in Point Pleasant and was now heading back home to Ohio. She was driving her brand new 1967 Pontiac. She told the Huntington (WV) Herald-Dispatch, “As I was approaching the bridge when the light changed. When it went to green, I started over the bridge and there was a terrible shaking of the bridge.” Wood said, “My father was a riverboat captain and had talked about barges hitting the bridge and the pier. So when I heard that sound, I automatically put my car in reverse. By the time I got my car stopped, mine was on the very edge of where the bridge broke off.”
The bridge surface she had been on just seconds before was gone. Only her quick action had saved her life. Wood recalls seeing wires dangling, and she remembered a state patrol officer, Rudy Odell, and a volunteer, later identified as Robert Rimmey, coming to her car and walking her off the bridge. “You could hear people screaming,” she said. “It was terrible. By the time I went to the end of the bridge, I had gone into shock.”
Ruth Fout, co-author of the book The Silver Bridge Disaster of 1967 and administrative assistant at the Point Pleasant River Museum and Learning Center, recalls that a few cars did not fall into the water but were trapped on what was left of the bridge by tons of falling steel girders. “Melvin and Margaret Mae Cantrell, along with their friend, Cecil Clyde Counts, were headed for town when the bridge fell. Mrs. Cantrell was driving. A steel beam crashed onto their car, pinning it to the bridge. Melvin Cantrell, who was in the front passenger seat, and Cecil Counts, who was in the back seat, were both killed. Rescue workers were able to pull Margaret Cantrell from the wreckage. She survived.”
It was just a few minutes before police, fire, and other rescue workers started arriving on both sides of the river. But there was little they could do. Many vehicles had sunk beneath the waters, and others were tangled in tons of twisted steel that had collapsed on top of the vehicles in the river. Several small boats were launched to search for survivors.
One of the first pulled from the icy river waters was 24-year-old Howard Boggs of Bidwell, Ohio. He and his wife, 18-year-old Marjorie, and their 17-month-old daughter, had just started across the bridge when it collapsed. “That old bridge was bouncing up and down like it always does,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “Then, all of a sudden everything was falling down. My feet touched the damned bottom of the river. I don’t know how I came up. I must have blacked out again, because the next thing I knew I was hanging onto this barrel.” He sobbed, “I just hope to God that Marjorie and the baby got out OK.”
Local law enforcement officials had no idea of just how many cars and trucks had plunged into the river. They estimated the loss could go as high as 100. The Ohio River at that point is about 30 to 70 feet deep, and there are strong currents.
One of the first reporters on the scene was 20-year-old Rondal “Ron” Akers for WCMI radio, the CBS affiliate in Huntington, West Virginia. He recalls that there were no police barricades, and he was able to pull right up to the edge of where the bridge used to be on the Point Pleasant side of the river. He was “gobsmacked” by the sight before him. “When the bridge collapsed, it twisted upon itself and the cars were tangled in the superstructure of the bridge,” he said. “It was kind of like wringing out a cloth. There was a car that was squished down so it looked like it was two feet across.”
William Edmondson, 38, of North Carolina, told the Cincinnati Enquirer he was driving a large tractor-trailer across the bridge when the bridge suddenly collapsed. “Traffic was bumper-to-bumper, about three feet apart. It was backed up from a red light on the Ohio side. I was in the right lane, going north, the bridge came loose on the right side first, the side I was on. The bridge rolled over . . . . I felt it settling down. It was like an elevator, but fast. . . . It felt like rock when we hit the water. My truck was on its right side, and it instantly filled with water, although the windows were up. I thought I was a goner. I didn’t think it was possible I could get out of the vehicle, but then the door tore off on my side and I floated out. I started floating towards the surface and then I started paddling.”
Edmondson swam to a roll of rubber fabric, cargo from his truck, and held on until a boat reached him. He had been in the frigid waters for about ten minutes.
William M. Needham, 27, also of North Carolina, had a similar brush with death. He told the Gallipolis Daily Tribune that when his truck crashed into the river, it “sank like a rock. We went all the way to the bottom. The windows were up. I held my breath, I reached for the handle of the window, but I couldn’t find it. I was able to get my fingers in a small crack at the top of the window. I pulled the window down that way and got out.” Needham swam to the surface and was picked up by rescuers. “I wanted to make it home for Christmas,” he said from his hospital bed. “But, I’m happy to just be alive. I’m a very lucky man.”
Not so lucky was his driving partner and alternate driver, R. E. Towe, who was asleep in the cab when the span fell and was now among the missing. His body would later be found.
Paul Scott, 52, of Middleport, was another who survived the crash into the river. He recalls that he and fellow passenger Frederick “Dean” Miller of Gallipolis were riding in a car driven by James Pullen of Middleport. They had reached the high middle of the bridge, and Scott was looking out the window when “the bridge began shaking.” Then, the side of the bridge they were on collapsed. “I remember it going down,” Scott said, “but I don’t remember how I got out. The next thing I knew, I was struggling towards the surface in the cold water. It seemed like forever before I was rescued by a boat.”
Pullen and Mitchell did not make it out of the sunken car.
Radio reporter Ron Akers was interviewing a Point Pleasant police officer at the edge of the bridge. ”It was incredibly cold that night,” he recalls. “All I had on was a sports coat. I tell you, it was cold. Suddenly he [the officer] stopped and said, ‘Listen. Listen.’ There was a male voice calling for help. We couldn’t see him. I don’t know if they ever found him.”
No barge-mounted heavy cranes were immediately available to use as rescue equipment. Portable cranes brought to the river’s edge were just not powerful enough to lift heavy, water-filled cars to the surface.
A large tow truck tried to pull a car out of the water near the bridge, but the weight was too great, and the tow truck ripped the steering mechanism and wheels off the car.
By the time darkness fell, hundreds of people had gathered on the banks of the river. Coast Guard boats had joined the volunteers in private boats searching the dark waters. Dozens of volunteer divers were arriving.
Tim Jameson, 26, a gas station attendant in Point Pleasant, put on his diving gear and went shivering onto the dark river water among the twisted steel beams. But he had to stop because it was too dangerous to go further in the dark. He could see two people trapped in a car under a beam. The car was crushed; the couple pinned inside were dead.
“You can see them, if you duck down, a man and a woman,” he told the Plain Dealer. “I’d give anything to go in there and get them out, not because it would help them any, but it’s, well, it’s proper. A human being deserves something better than that even if it’s dead. I’m going home now and tomorrow morning at dawn I’m going to come back here and get down there and get some of these people out. It’s the least I can do. I may have friends down there. I don’t know.”
The Gallipolis Daily Tribune reported that, as of midnight on that terrible day, there were so far a total of four known dead and at least eleven survivors who were patients at Holzer Hospital in Gallipolis. Across the river in Pleasant Valley Hospital were six survivors. Rescue workers were still struggling to determine just how many people had been on the bridge when it collapsed and how many of those people were still missing.
Automobiles and trucks lined up along the riverbanks so their headlights could help illuminate the dark river waters. Floodlights were mounted to trees and to some of the bridge wreckage to give rescue workers light to work by. Local phone service was overwhelmed as lines were jammed by hundreds of people frantically calling loved ones to learn if they were safe. Police were trying to compile lists of people whom anxious relatives and friends thought might have been on the bridge when it went down.
As the night went on, authorities realized that anyone still in the water was probably dead, either from the fall into the river or by drowning. Even if they survived and somehow reached the surface, unless rescued immediately they probably would have perished within an hour from hypothermia in the cold river.
All night long, radio reporter Ron Akers huddled whenever he could in a phone booth near the bridge to keep warm and to file reports with his radio station in Huntington, which in turn forwarded his reports to the CBS network.
By dawn, the search and rescue operation had ended. Now, it became a recovery mission.
The United States Army Corps of Engineers arrived with five barge-mounted cranes.
Professional divers were arriving with their equipment. However, when the divers donned their bulky suits and helmets, attached to air hoses, and entered the river, they were hampered by the swift current and the fact that recent heavy rains had swollen the river and made the water too murky to see anything.
After surfacing from one dive, Max Ray, a deep-sea diver from New Orleans, told the Plain Dealer, “It’s hairy and dangerous down there. You’ve got to worry about metal falling on you. I dropped through that mess, and it started to slide. It’s so shaky, I could move those beams with my hand. You can’t see your hand on the faceplate of your mask.”
Nevertheless, Ray and his fellow divers, joined by some scuba divers, made repeated dives into the darkness of the river, using their hands to feel for wrecked cars and victims.
By Sunday morning, divers had located several cars and trucks underwater and were able to attach cables to the wreckage, enabling the barge cranes to pull them out of the river.
It was a slow process. By the end of the day, they had recovered eight bodies.
Most of the people still missing were assumed to be in the river. People like Lee “Doc” Otto Sanders, who drove the local taxi. Sanders was not supposed to be working that evening, but when another driver called off, Sanders took a passenger, Ronald Gene Moore, who wanted to go to Point Pleasant. The two were on the bridge when it collapsed.
Thomas Allen Cantrell (no relation to Melvin Cantrell, also killed on the bridge) was a newspaper delivery man. He intended to quit his job that day and had plans to go to California and become a cartoonist. He had made his last run to deliver papers to Point Pleasant and was on his way back to Gallipolis to drop off his keys when the bridge fell.
A good deed apparently cost Ronald Robert Sims his life. He left work late from his job as a designer at the Goodyear plant in order to give Bobby Head a ride home. They were on the bridge when it went down.
The list of missing persons contained names of men, women, and children—in some cases, several members of the same family.
State trooper Rudy Odell had been assigned the terrible job of tagging each victim pulled from the water before the body was taken to a temporary morgue.
The grief felt by each of the families and loved ones of the victims is beyond anyone’s ability to describe or understand. And the effects would be long lasting. In some cases, the family breadwinner had perished, forcing many families to face hardship in the months and years to come.
The recovery of the bodies was painfully slow. It would be almost six months after the collapse of the bridge when the last known body was recovered, found by fishermen downriver. It was finally determined that forty-six people had been killed in the tragedy.
Two victims were never recovered.
According to Ruth Fout, Catherine Lucille Byus was ten years old and riding with her two-month-old sister, Kimberly, and their mother, Hilda. All three were killed. The bodies of Hilda and baby Kimberly were found downriver several weeks after the collapse of the bridge. Catherine’s body was never found.
Maxine Turner of Point Pleasant was riding with her husband, Victor. They had just gone to Gallipolis to pick up her niece and were headed back home when the tragedy occurred. The bodies of her husband and niece were recovered, but Maxine’s was never found.
Within hours of the bridge collapse, the National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation into its cause. Along with the cars and trucks recovered from the river, divers and cranes brought up the tangled steel that was once the bridge. Investigators used a field nearby to loosely reassemble the bridge in their search for clues.
After nearly three and half years of investigation, the board finally released its findings in April 1971. The cause, the report said, was “a cleavage fracture in the lower limb of the eye of eyebar 330 at joint C13N of the north eyebar suspension chain in the Ohio side span. The fracture was caused by the development of a critical size flaw over the 40-year life of the structure as the result of the joint action of stress corrosion and corrosion fatigue.”
The report also stated that the corroded part that fractured and caused the collapse was in a place impossible to see unless the bridge had been dismantled.
A new bridge, the Silver Memorial Bridge, was built about a mile south of the original location, between Gallipolis and Henderson, West Virginia. It was opened to traffic exactly two years to the day the original bridge fell, December 15, 1969.
The new bridge, unlike the failed Silver Bridge, is a cantilever-styled crossing—meaning support is required on only one side of each cantilever—which is considered a much safer bridge for heavy traffic.
The Silver Bridge disaster also brought about new federal laws regarding inspections and, perhaps most important, load limits for bridges. (There were no load limits in 1967.)
A couple of bright spots appeared during my research of this terrible tragedy.
On December 30th, 1967, just fifteen days after the fall of the bridge—fifteen days after Paul A. Scott was riding in a car that sank to the bottom of the Ohio River, killing two of his companions—Scott, with his arm still bandaged from his ordeal, walked his daughter, Carol, down the aisle at her wedding.
And remember Charlene Clark Wood, the quick-thinking pregnant woman who saved her own life by driving in reverse on the falling bridge? Just four months later, in April 1968, she gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl.
Radio reporter Ron Akers of WCMI left broadcasting to become a member of the Ohio state patrol. Then after six years of that, he decided to become a doctor. So he went back to school and eventually became Dr. Rondal Akers. He practiced in Cleveland, Tennessee, until his retirement.
Today, at the end of Sixth Street in Point Pleasant, where the approach to the Silver Bridge once stood, there is a brickwork memorial with forty-six names. Forty-six people who, on December 15, 1967, crossed the Silver Bridge into eternity.
Top photo: An unidentified Ohio State Highway patrol trooper stands at what was once the roadway onto the Silver Bridge that connected Ohio and West Virginia. (Courtesy of the Ohio State Highway Patrol)