Friday, December 14, 2007

Survivor Recalls Plunge From Silver Bridge into The River

Silver Bridge Tumbles (Headline)
By Jake Stump
The Charleston Daily Mail

     Truck driver William Edmondson was hauling 35,000 pounds of tire fabric on his usual run back to Detroit on Dec. 15, 1967.

Coming from Winston-Salem, N.C., Edmondson would cross the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant two or three times a week.

The suspension bridge, which connected Point Pleasant and Kanauga, Ohio, was built in 1928 and named for the color of its aluminum paint.

For Edmondson, then 38, it was just another freight run.

That is, until the bridge shook unusually as he drove his rig over it. He recalls the bridge tilting right, collapsing and dumping him and everything on the deck into the Ohio River below.

The impact launched Edmondson from the driver's seat through the passenger glass window.

Immersed in 43-degree water, Edmondson floated downstream to the mouth of the Kanawha River. He eventually came upon a barge, where some men helped the battered and bloodied trucker out of the water.

"If I hadn't been conscious, I would have drowned," Edmondson said.

Edmondson was transported to Pleasant Valley Hospital and treated for a broken right arm and several cuts on his arms, legs and head.

He's one of the few to

live through the disaster that killed 46 people.

It is believed there were 37 vehicles on the span when it crumbled, and only nine people survived the fall.

Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of the collapse. Jam-packed with rush hour traffic at around 5 p.m. that day, the bridge gave way because of the failure of a single eye-bar in the suspension chain, investigators concluded.

A newspaper reporter described the event by writing that the bridge "bent sharply to the north, spilling its contents into the river, then groaning, went down in slow motion on top of the sinking vehicles, apparently crushing many of them against the river bottom."

Now 78, Edmondson lives in King, N.C., a town of about 6,000.

He considers himself a lucky man, because so many others, including his driving partner, didn't make it.

Harold Cundiff, who was riding with Edmondson, was sound asleep in the back of the cab.

"They didn't find his body until six weeks later," Edmondson said.

After he recovered, Edmondson went back to work in early 1968.

He would finally decide to give it up five years later after he got pinned in a tractor-trailer for three hours after a crash on Interstate 95 near Washington, D.C. He suffered a broken collarbone.

"I thought, 'You get me out of this truck and I'm not going to get into it ever again,'" he said.

Though Edmondson said the Silver Bridge collapse didn't dramatically alter his life, he would still get a jolt of fear every time he drove across a bridge.

For a while, he had nightmares.

"It took me a while to get over it," he said during a telephone interview this week. "But time heals. I'm just as good as ever. I busted up my elbow and that's the biggest thing that happened to me."

He still experiences stiffness in his elbow and it's not as useful as his left one.

Out of curiosity, Edmondson returned to Point Pleasant three years ago to see how things have changed in the river town. He also wanted to see how the town was dealing with the past tragedy.

He was even on-hand when the Silver Memorial Bridge was constructed to replace the old one in 1969.

Ever since, he's built up a collection of newspaper clippings and pictures about the Silver Bridge.

He said he doesn't stay in touch with any fellow survivors, but remembers sharing a hospital room with one, William "Frank" Wamsley, after the collapse.

"I tell you what's strange," Edmondson said. "There were three of us named William who survived it."

Wamsley, of Point Pleasant, was 28 at the time of the collapse.

Also surviving were Howard Boggs, of Bidwell, Ohio; Paul Scott, of Middleport, Ohio; William Needham Jr., of Asheboro, N.C.; Samuel Ellis, of Winston-Salem, N.C.; Frank Nunn, of Greenville, N.C.; Margaret Cantrell, of Gallipolis Ferry; and John Fishel, of Petersburg, Va.

Many of those listed could not be reached and were unlisted in telephone directories.

Scores of others on U.S. 35 that day were fortunate enough to cross the bridge moments before it collapsed.

Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood, who was then a sophomore studying education at Marshall, remembers traveling home to Williamstown for Christmas break.

Anderson and a few friends made it across the bridge about five minutes before it fell.

"I know there was a lot of wind on the river that day," Anderson recalled. "It was extremely windy."

On the way home, he noticed heavy traffic heading in both directions, and an unusually large amount of tractor-trailers on the bridge.

Anderson, a teacher, said he tells the story to his students.

"I let them know I was pretty close," he said. "I'm a firm believer that the Lord wanted to leave me here. I tell the kids if I went across that bridge five minutes later that they may have never had to encounter me."

Though Anderson didn't personally know anyone who died in the collapse, he said it's piqued his interest when dealing with transportation safety issues at the Statehouse.

In Point Pleasant, the bridge collapse is just one of several unusual events that are associated with the town.

Immediately after the collapse, some residents theorized about possible causes.

Some claimed to have heard a sonic boom around the time the bridge fell. Investigators determined that if a sonic boom had occurred, there would have been damage to other structures.

In later years, a Time magazine reporter speculated about the collapse and the curse of Chief Cornstalk. In 1777, Cornstalk, a prominent leader of the Shawnee Indians during the American Revolution, made a diplomatic visit to Fort Randolph at Point Pleasant. American militiamen, however, were less cordial and detained Cornstalk at the fort. He was later killed.

The area has since been said to be under the curse of Chief Cornstalk.

People have also pointed at the Mothman, the mysterious winged-creature supposedly spotted several times in the Point Pleasant area, as a reason for the disaster.

Mothman sightings were reported frequently in the months leading up to the collapse. But following the collapse, reports of sightings seemed to quell.

In the 2002 film "Mothman Prophecies," starring Richard Gere, the movie ends with the collapse of the Silver Bridge.

Jeff Wamsley operates the Mothman Museum in downtown Point Pleasant.

"It depends on who you talk to," Wamsley said about the Mothman-Silver Bridge connection. "Technically, the bridge collapsed due to a failed eyebolt that had rusted over the years. But since the bridge fell around the same time all of the UFO/Mothman sightings, some locals thought this was more than a mere coincidence.

"There seems to be a conspiracy angle to most big disasters and the Silver Bridge collapse seems to draw many different opinions on why and how the bridge fell. Regardless of the reason, there were 46 people who died and countless families' lives were changed forever."

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