POINT PLEASANT — “I mean, everything had to fall right in place to the second, or I woudn’t be here. It was that close. It’s just unreal.”
These are the words of William Edmondson of King, N.C. Edmondson, now 88, was just 38 years old when the truck he was driving toppled into the Ohio River along with dozens of other vehicles when the Silver Bridge collapsed in 1967. He was one of a handful of people pulled alive from the frigid water that night.
Edmondson returned to the area last week for the 50th anniversary of the bridge disaster and attended two of the ceremonies marking the solemn occasion. Edmondson, while visiting at the Point Pleasant River Museum and Learning Center, sat down with Ohio Valley Publishing to tell his story.
A driver for Hennis Freight Lines in 1967, he and his driving partner Harold Cundiff, were on their way north to Detroit, Mich. on Dec. 15, 1967, delivering what Edmondson described as fabric that went inside tires. Edmondson started driving in Beckley, allowing Cundiff some time to crawl into the sleeper cab to get some rest.
“My truck was over halfway across going into Ohio on the downgrade,” he said. “I remember sitting there and the traffic light wasn’t working at the end of the bridge so that’s the reason traffic was backed up.”
Edmondson said there was “no warning” that the bridge was going to fall.
“I was just sitting there and the next thing I knew, the bridge turned over. It just turned over and it hesitated for two or three seconds. I was holding onto the steering wheel and then it headed down.”
He said he thought “how in the world am I going to get out of here” right before hitting the water.
And, the heavy tractor trailer hit the water with such force it turned Edmondson into a “projectile” and his elbow literally busted the passenger side window, the glass cutting him on his face and back. But, he made it out through the broken window.
“It fell so fast,” he said.
He explained the current carried him out from under the truck and when he came up, there was nothing, no bridge there.
“That whole bridge was under water.”
When he first came up from the water, his “britches” had come all the way down and were turned the wrong side out. He chuckled when telling how his “britches” had been too tight so he had “undone” his belt when he was driving. With his “britches” now inside out but unable to go over his shoes, they got caught on some object in the river and he was snagged with them, being pulled under. He was stuck and struggling. He started kicking his feet and by some miracle they slipped over his shoes and he was freed. He still can’t believe those pants slipped over his shoes to get him loose.
“Right there, I believe the Lord had something to do with that. I came right back up, just that like.”
He said when he was underwater, and stuck, “I thought this was it” and opened his mouth and got it filled with river water.
“I didn’t have enough courage to inhale it so I just swallowed it…so I drunk out of the Ohio River,” he joked.
After he was freed from that entanglement, he said the seat from his truck floated up beside him and he grabbed on, holding on as long as he could as the current continued to carry him.
“I held on until it (the seat) finally got away from me,” he said. “So I floated a pretty good ways. The current was so fast.”
About this time, the fabric he had been hauling started popping up all around him after the trailer busted. He said the fabric was packaged in burlap bundles weighing around 600-700 pounds.
“They come plumb out of the water, that rubber fabric, I thought, ‘boy, hope none of them come up under me’…they were all around me.”
One did float up right beside him. This bundle was special because there was a fortuitous slit in the burlap fabric just big enough for him to get his finger into to hang on.
“There was this little, bitty slot wide enough I could get my finger in so I reached up and put my finger in the slit and that was the only slit on that whole bundle,” he said. “I held on to it. My finger got so cold, I dreaded to turn it loose (he was loosing control and feeling in his hand).”
About this time, a bird landed on that roll of fabric and continued to float with Edmondson as the current carried him closer to the Kanawha River.
“All under that bridge was birds’ nests and I looked up while floating down river and this bird was above me sitting on the fabric looking at me the whole time and I was looking at him,” he said. “Some people I told about that bird sitting up there, they told me that wasn’t a bird, that was your angel.”
He smiled a bit and said, “I ain’t denying it. It was sure up there (on the bundle).”
He said about the time the bird landed was when he could feel the bundle getting away from him.
“I thought ‘this is it,’ you know, ….I couldn’t believe it, I looked up and there was that bird, he just appeared out of nowhere. I just looked up and there it was.”
It was then that a barge pilot spotted him. Edmondson said the pilot told him he saw the bridge fall while in the pilothouse and he radioed down to his crew to tell them to get ready to leave the riverbank to help.
“He saw me and pulled that barge in front of me…I floated into the side of it.”
Near the mouth of the Kanawha River, the crew threw him a rope with a flotation device on it and pulled him up out of the water.
“I didn’t have my pants, still had my shoes, I mean it was really cold with the wind blowing so they instantly wrapped me up in some blankets and they took me up there in the pilothouse where it was warm and he (the pilot) asked me if it was ok if he circled around some more to look to see if he could find someone else. I told him ‘yeah, go ahead, I’m ok.’”
Edmondson said the pilot radioed for an ambulance which picked him up at the riverbank and took him to Pleasant Valley Hospital.
At the time he was rescued, Edmondson said he was hopeful his driving partner was somewhere out there in the water waiting to be rescued as well, but that wasn’t to be. Cundiff’s remains were found around five weeks later.
“They found him way down river. He had come out of the cab some way,” he said. “When that cab hit the water…”
He speculated Cundiff’s head had struck the cab with the same force Edmondson’s elbow and body had struck the window.
Gina Cocklereece of Winston-Salem, N.C. was one of Cundiff’s daughters. She was 11 when her father died. Earlier this year, in September, she and he sister made their first trip to Point Pleasant to see where their father had passed and then, by chance or fate, this past October, Edmondson and his son had made the trip to Point Pleasant. All visited the river museum who connected the two families who later connected in North Carolina. They all met up again at last week’s remembrance ceremony.
Cocklereece said her only memory of Edmondson when she was a child had been when he came to her home soon after the disaster.
“I couldn’t tell you what he looked like, it (the memory) is more of an image and I can tell you where he sat and that his arm was in a cast, and…he probably doesn’t remember this,” Cocklereece hesitated with emotion. “But, he broke down and said, ‘Why? Why him and not me?’ And that’s about all I remember.”
She said she tried to look him up over the years via the Internet but had no luck, that was until they both visited the river museum.
“It’s the 50th anniversary, I think that’s what has brought us back,” she said.
As fate would have it, during those 50 years, the families lived only about 15 miles from one another.
When asked about last week’s ceremony, Cocklereece said, “It’s good to gather with other people who have been touched. You don’t get the massiveness of it…just coming here in September and being able to see (what was) the (bridge) span. You get a sense of what the conditions were and we met a lot of people who just couldn’t hardly talk about it, even the locals, everybody has their scars.”
At the museum last week, Edmondson was sure to tell Cocklereece, “I want you to know how good a guy Harold (Cundiff) was…he was telling me about after he got back off that trip he was taking off until after Christmas. He just couldn’t wait.”
“This is the sweetest man, we’re just glad he’s here,” Cocklereece said.
For Edmondson, he has a good sense of humor about what he’s been through and jokes, he wanted to make it to 88 because that was Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s car number. He’d also like to know who the pilot was who spotted him in the river that night 50 years ago.
When asked why he made it out of the river that day and made it many days after, he said it had to do with “the good Lord” and “I don’t know why (He has kept me here) but I sure thank Him for it, I mean, I can’t believe I’d be here if it wasn’t for the Lord that pulled me through.”
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing.