POINT PLEASANT — Friday morning, hundreds gathered inside a tent which sat in the very lanes of traffic which used to lead to the Silver Bridge. Those hundreds gathered to pay their respects on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy which took 46 lives.
The event was organized by the West Virginia Department of Transportation, along with the City of Point Pleasant, the Mason County Commission and a host of volunteers.
Attending and giving remarks were Mike Hall, chief of staff to Governor Jim Justice, who gave the invocation; U.S. Senators Joe Manchin, III, and Shelley Moore Capito; Micheal Chirico, deputy chief of staff for U.S. Congressman Evan Jenkins; Mayor Brian Billings; WVDOT Secretary Tom Smith; Acting Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Brandye Hendrickson who was introduced by West Virginia Division Administrator for FHWA Edward Stephen; Randy Damron of WVDOT was also helped organize the event.
Manchin addressed those in the audience, specifically the family members and loved ones of the 46 victims saying “our hearts are still with you and we’ve never forgotten and we never will.”
Manchin relayed he remembered first hearing of the tragedy while a junior at WVU.
“I couldn’t believe it and never heard of anything happening like this,” he said, adding, someone shouldn’t be driving their cars to work and have something fail on them and take their lives.
He then talked about the changes which were made as a result of the tragedy when it came to national bridge inspection and how many lives had been saved since the tragedy, making that a legacy of the victims.
Capito echoed Manchin’s remarks on advances in transportation and infrastructure though she said the country still had a long way to go to continue improvements. She talked about how many West Virginians appreciate living along the “beautiful” Ohio River, but she realized when the family and friends of the victims look at the river, they “think about something else.”
She added: “We join together as West Virginians to pull one another up to help. In 1967, that happened, we pulled together to try to comfort, to make things better, to understand, to be empathetic, to shed tears and I think that’s why we’re all so proud to be West Virginians.”
Smith then spoke saying, “There’s two things we’re doing today. One, is to honor those who passed away on this site 50 years ago, and the second thing is to reflect on the significance of what came from that…the National Bridge Inspection Program that literally saved thousands and thousands of lives nationwide.”
Hendrickson then spoke: “From ashes comes beauty it is said and the nationwide attention that the collapse generated drastically changed the way we approach bridge safety and the hundreds of millions of Americans who have driven over a bridge anytime in the last 50 years are safer as a result. Ever since that fateful day here, our efforts at ensuring bridge safety have grown stronger. Safety is our top priority at federal highways and we want to make sure that bridges remain safe….no family should ever have to suffer a loss like this.”
Hendrickson then spoke about the legislation which brought about the national bridge inspection program in 1968.
“What today seems obvious was groundbreaking back then,” she said. “The hard lessons learned from this tragedy 50 years ago protect America’s 615,000 bridges and those who depend on them.”
Hall stood in for Gov. Jim Justice who was scheduled to attend but had to cancel due to a family medical issue. Hall told family members of the victims “our thoughts and prayers are with you.” He added, “We don’t want to forget…there was some outcome..there was change in our country to make sure something like this wouldn’t happen again.”
Hall also recognized William Edmondson from King, North Carolina, who was a truck driver on the bridge when it fell and survived. Edmondson is now 88 years old.
The names of the victims were read by Mayor Brian Billings with Martha and Ruth Fout ringing a bell following each name. This was followed by Steve and Annie Chapman who performed a rendition of their 1997 recording, “The Silver Bridge.”
Also at the event, Billings and Mason County Commissioner Tracy Doolittle announced a mural would be placed on the flood wall at 6th Street, where the bridge entered and exited, depicting the structure. The pair unveiled an artistic rendering of the mural which will be completed in 2018.
The West Virginia National Guard presented the colors and the National Guard Band performed The National Anthem. Pastor James Kelly gave the benediction.
(Editor’s note: More photos from Friday’s ceremony appear inside and online at www.mydailyregister.com.)
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing.