An absolute masterpiece of American engineering, the Silver Bridge was designed by the J.E. Greiner Co. of Baltimore and built by the West Virginia-Ohio River Bridge Corp. and American Bridge Co. The WV-ORBC had been organized just a few years prior by Dr. Charles E. Holzer, who, as someone who needed quick access to patients, understood the need for quicker transportation between Ohio and West Virginia. From the start of construction, it took less than a year to construct the $1.2-million-dollar bridge, a record for the companies involved. It was a gleaming testament to the genius of the designers, supported by rocker towers and eye-bar chains that boasted a strength of 150,000 pounds per square inch. After WWII, the bridge was upgraded from a wood and asphalt roadway to one of concrete and steel. Certainly, in 1967, nobody would have believed you if you told them that the bridge was going to collapse.
Yet at 4:58 p.m. on Dec. 15, 1967, an eye-bar broke just below the Ohio tower. Many eyewitnesses heard what sounded like a shotgun, and then the shaking began. It was so rough that some cars were moving as much as 6 inches to either side. Suddenly, the bridge rocked violently one way, then the other, and then the bridge just dropped. An awful sound, that of metal grinding on metal, continued throughout the collapse, and then an oppressive silence set in. In about a minute, the failure had cascaded across the Silver Bridge, taking 64 people with it, 46 of those people were killed.
Quickly overcoming shock, locals rushed to the scene. Bill McCormick and another man jumped onto the City Ice & Fuel boat, and they saved four people who were floating in the river. A fifth person was pulled from the river by other rescuers. Others rushed to the bridge approaches to help victims on shore. Many people were injured in the collapse of the Ohio approach, and rescue crews had to work by the light of car headlights and flashlights until floodlights were brought in. They worked around the clock, keeping warm by fires.
The injured and dead were quickly transported to Holzer and Pleasant Valley Hospitals. Two morgues were set up, one at the Grace Methodist Church in Gallipolis and another at the National Guard armory just north of Point Pleasant.
Of course, quite a bit of debris also ended up in the river. Perhaps one of the most disturbing sights that night was that of Christmas presents floating in the water. As the collapse was less than two weeks before Christmas, many families lost their children’s’ gifts in the collapse. In a touching display of compassion, many companies and organizations donated money and gifts to give the affected families some sense of continuity through the holidays.
Recovery efforts continued through Feb. 5, 1968. By that time, all but two of the bodies had been recovered, and the tangled remains of the Silver Bridge were laid out in a field just south of Henderson. The National Transportation and Safety Board spent the next three years investigating the collapse, finally determining that it was due to the failure of eye-bar 330. Stress corrosion cracks had been missed during previous inspections, and this eventually led to the complete failure of the eye-bar.
Two years later to the day, on Dec. 15, 1969, the Silver Memorial Bridge was opened, fulfilling a promise made by President Lyndon Johnson that a new bridge would be built within two years of the collapse. This ended the need for ferries between Point Pleasant and Kanauga. The disaster also led to Congress’ passage of stricter bridge inspection standards.
Tomorrow marks the 52nd anniversary of the collapse, and we still remember the 46 lives lost on that bitterly cold night. Many thanks to the Point Pleasant River Museum for working so hard to preserve their memory and to Kenny Grady for his work organizing the annual memorial, which will take place tomorrow evening at 4:30 at the foot of Sixth Street as usual.
Information from the WV State Archives, WV DOT, and “Images of America: The Silver Bridge Disaster of 1967” written by Stephan G. Bullard, Bridget J. Gromek, Martha Fout, Ruth Fout, and the Pt. Pleasant River Museum.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at [email protected] The next meeting of the Society will be 6 p.m., Monday, Dec. 16, at the Mason County Library in Point Pleasant.