GALLIPOLIS, Ohio — It was the only bridge for 50 miles across the quarter-mile-wide Ohio River, and on the night it collapsed--dropping 46 people to their deaths--it was packed with cars and trucks.
Not just one section of Silver Bridge fell away that afternoon 10 days before Christmas, but the entire 1,750-foot-long span, from the Ohio side to the West Virginia side, plunged into the water.
People, cars, trucks and tons of steel all tumbled simultaneously through 100 feet of air before splashing into the cold, 40-foot-deep river.
That was 20 years ago, but many remember it like it was yesterday.
"I walked down to the river, looked up and, boy, it was gone," Bill Wamsley said. "I looked down the river and there was a Mack truck floating down the river."
Generations born after the tragedy have a hard time grasping the magnitude of the event.
"For some reason, until a few years ago, I always thought it was the Old Blue Bridge (a small span across the Kanawha River in West Virginia) that fell," said Amy Roderick, 16. "Not the Silver Bridge. You look at the Silver Bridge (the 18-year-old replacement) and you think, there's no way that could fall."
That's what a lot of people thought about the first one, named for its shiny aluminum paint.
I-Bar Had Cracked
Dedicated in 1928, the bridge featured a unique heat-treated I-bar, chain-suspension system. Investigators 40 years later would determine that it was one of those marvelous I-bars that cracked and triggered the disaster.
By 5 p.m. on the day that it happened, traffic lights at each end of the U.S. 35 span to Point Pleasant, W.Va., had backed up heavy traffic onto the bridge--including numerous tractor-trailer rigs. Witness Paul Scott recalled that the bridge simply began "shaking."
"It went to the left, then to the right. And then it never came back. It just kept going."
Bill Needham sat in his truck as it was tossed off the heaving bridge.
"We hit the water and the truck sank like a rock," said Needham, who pushed down a cracked window, scrambled out, rose to the surface and found a piece of floating debris to cling to until he was rescued.
But 46 others perished.
The replacement Silver Memorial Bridge, built a quarter-mile downstream from its predecessor and dedicated on Dec. 15, 1969--the second anniversary of the collapse--has become part of the everyday life of the community, just like the old Silver Bridge had.
"As a kid, I walked across that bridge many a time," Wamsley said. "I remember standing in the middle of it and those tractor-trailer trucks would come across and you'd feel that bridge bounce. I'm no expert on bridge construction, but I never felt it was kept in good repair. It was sort of neglected.
"Until that bridge collapsed, I think people took bridges for granted. They're there and you really don't have to worry about them. I think the collapse of our bridge has prompted a lot more concern for bridge inspections."
Indeed, several years ago the new Silver Bridge was inspected to such a degree that 108 small defects were noted. Two of the four lanes were closed for several months while repairs were made.
But it's not the new Silver Bridge that worries townspeople. It's the Old Blue Bridge across the Kanawha, which empties into the Ohio just upriver.
"Before the Silver Bridge fell, you never heard any talk about a bridge collapse around here, but you sure do now," Wamsley said. "I have a sister-in-law who is very fearful of another bridge falling in."
Wamsley said after the collapse "cars were parked on both sides of the highway for miles and lots of people left their cars to look at what happened. There were a lot of Christmas presents in those cars and there were some looters who grabbed as many as they could.