POINT PLEASANT — “Let us never forget what took place here on Dec. 15, 1967,” Point Pleasant Mayor Brian Billings said while addressing a large crowd gathered for Tuesday’s Inaugural Silver Bridge Memorial Tree Lighting.
Billings, who was introduced by Mason County Commissioner Tracy Doolittle, spoke about the stars in the newly designed flag for the City of Point Pleasant and how one of those stars represents the Silver Bridge and the 46 people who perished when it collapsed, full of Christmas, rush-hour traffic, 48 years ago.
Billings asked those gathered to always remember because this was “your community.”
Billings then introduced Jack Fowler, of the Point Pleasant River Museum and Learning Center, which houses a massive collection of artifacts on the tragedy, as well as a model of the bridge.
“We live it every day,” Fowler said when talking about the museum’s staff, including Martha and Ruth Fout, who co-authored a book on the subject, its collection, and the people that collection draws to it to gain insight into the disaster and the victims.
Fowler then talked to the crowd about the history of the Silver Bridge in the spot where it used to stand; where U.S. 35 once landed in the middle of Point Pleasant. He spoke about Dr. Charles Holzer as being one of the people who helped pushed the project that was completed in one year and opened to traffic in 1928. How, at the grand opening of the bridge, there were an estimated 10,000 people at the event that was talked about not only in the immediate area, but across the Midwest. The bridge was a two-lane, 1760-foot-long eyebar suspension bridge with a 700-foot main span 102 feet above the bottom of the Ohio River channel and two 380-foot anchor spans. It was the first bridge in the world to be coated with aluminum.
Fowler then talked about the bridge not being designed to hold the weight of increasing traffic and heavier vehicles over the years and the “one-eighth of an inch crack” in one of the structure’s eyebars that caused the disaster.
“We had what the people of Paris and what the people of San Bernadino experienced,” Fowler said. “In less than one minute, we lost 46 people.”
Following Fowler were the names of all 46 victims read aloud by Miss Ohio Megan Wise, Carolin Harris, owner of Harris’ Steakhouse and the Rev. Matthew Dotson, of Good Shepherd UM Church. Harris paused when reading the name of her own son, James Timothy Meadows, who was three years old at the time of the collapse and was on the bridge with his father, James F. Meadows, who also perished.
After the names were read, Dotson led the crowd in a prayer and moment of silence, followed by 46 chimes rung from the Mason County Courthouse in memory of the 46 victims. Then, Dotson introduced Chayston Handley, a student at Leon Elementary who has been battling cancer and is in the third month of a six-month cycle of chemotherapy. Handley, representing resiliency, was joined by former Mayor of Point Pleasant Jimmy Joe Wedge, whose parents, Paul and Lillian Wedge, were on the bridge that day and also perished. Wedge lit the star atop the tree in the lawn of the Mason County Courthouse — a star specially designed with 46 points of light and then Handley lit the tree, all while Beth Rollins performed a Christmas song.
Then, a memorial, lighted wreath was placed by Billings, Doolittle and fellow Commissioners Rick Handley and Miles Epling and Point Pleasant Police Chief Joe Veith. The wreath was placed at the memorial at 6th Street where the names of the victims are engraved on bricks and special lights, and angels have been placed in the trees, also with the names of the victims, specifically for the ceremony.
Members of the community choir, under the direction of Larry Jones, then performed “Silent Night.”
Kenny Grady, who helped organize the event, also spoke, saying there were so many people that helped make this happen, including people across the community and local merchants. He also recognized the Mason County Commission and City of Point Pleasant for their help, with special thanks to Doolittle and Kim Harbour who works in the commission office. He also thanked Larry and Patty Pyles for donating free carriage rides via Rio Stables through downtown Point Pleasant after the event.
Grady became emotional when talking about that “tragic day” and how, seeing as Christmas is the season of giving, what better gift than to give this ceremony to the families of the victims.
Starting off the ceremony, members of the Point Pleasant Intermediate School Choir performed.
More photos from Tuesday’s inaugural tree lighting found at www.mydailyregister.com and on the Point Pleasant Register’s Facebook page.
Reach Beth Sergent at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BSergentWrites.