Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Columns

May 19, 2013

Flashbacks revive memories of tragedy

ASHLAND — I remember the day like it was yesterday — Dec. 15, 1967, a few minutes before 5 p.m. in Ironton.

As the local reporter for the morning newspaper in nearby Huntington, W.Va., I was making a routine check at the sheriff’s office of calls and complaints.

The dispatcher on duty told me it was a quiet day. I asked to use a phone to check in with my editor.

I was waiting for him to answer when the dispatcher came rushing in to ask if I could hear what was happening on the radio.

“It’s gone, it’s gone! Oh my God, it’s gone! The Silver Bridge is gone!”

 A man was screaming into a police radio as the Ohio River bridge between Point Pleasant, W.Va., and Gallipolis, Ohio, broke apart and dropped into the water in front of his disbelieving eyes.

That eyewitness was a deputy sheriff from Gallipolis, and he was using the common radio frequency known in those days in Ohio as the “sheriff’s party line”.

The bridge was loaded with rush-hour traffic as 37 cars and trucks tumbled into the cold, murky river or onto the riverbank on the Ohio side.

The collapse claimed the lives of 46 men, women and children, many of them Christmas shoppers. Two victims were never found.

My boss was holding on the phone. I quickly told him what I had heard and then hit the road toward Gallipolis, some 60 miles away.

I drove like a wild man to reach the chaotic scene. I could see vehicles in the river and hear yelling.

I rushed down to the riverbank and stumbled over some tree limbs in the darkness, so I thought.

As I tried to get up, I discovered that a truck driver’s body was pinned under a massive piece of concrete bridge deck. I had tripped over his legs.

I found a police officer and led him to the crushed body.

The next 12 or so hours remain a blur of jumbled memories of horrific scenes of bodies and vehicles being pulled out of the wreckage and the river.

Other reporters from the newspaper relieved me, and I made a stop at the temporary morgue at an empty gas station.

I was checking names of victims on toe tags when I got another shock. One of the victims, a trucker, was a man I had known my entire life.

To this day, I wonder if he was the same man I discovered on the riverbank.

KEITH KAPPES can be reached at kkappes@themoreheadnews.com.

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