TOP STORY: 46 lives lost in Point Pleasant tragedy
POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — Residents of Mason County, W.Va., and Gallia County, Ohio, lost dozens of friends and loved ones Dec. 15, 1967, just before sundown at 5 o’clock. Loss, of course, was the most tragic and immediate impact after the collapse of the Silver Bridge.
A fractured eyebar that helped suspend the bridge caused the nearly 1,800-foot structure to collapse into the Ohio River.
Forty-six people died. Nine others were seriously injured.
Other effects of the tragedy came about later. It took a long time for Christmas to feel like Christmas again for many members of the tightly knit communities, which to some is more like one community divided by a river.
Others had nightmares about water. Some can hardly cross a bridge, even today.
All the while, many have been asked to tell and retell their stories about that night. They’ve become sought-after story-tellers, marked by outsiders for their experience and urged to frequently recount the events of Dec. 15, 1967.
Even after 40 years, the details are vivid, said Robert Rimmey, who lives about three miles outside of Point Pleasant. He watched the bridge fall and helped rescue a pregnant woman.
“I can remember it just like it was yesterday,” Rimmey told the Herald-Dispatch for the 40th anniversary story. “I’ll never forget it. If you lose friends like that, you never forget it.”
He lost friend Leo “Doc” Sanders that day. Sanders, a local cab driver, had a fare in Gallipolis and was in the middle of the bridge when it crumbled.
“I knew a lot of people on the bridge. I’ve lived here all my life,” Rimmey said.
Rimmey’s story starts from outside the Mason County Courthouse, where the then-28-year-old was sitting in view of the bridge, dubbed the “Silver Bridge” because of the aluminum paint that gave it a silver gleam.
It was a cold Friday evening, around freezing or below. A lot of people were about to get off work. Some had been busy with holiday errands. Others were headed to one ball game or another.
“I heard a loud crack, and I thought it was a post that used to be there on the sidewalk where I was sitting,” he said. “I turned around and I saw the bridge swaying, and the whole thing fell.”
He got out of his car as a state police officer was leaving the courthouse.
“He said, ‘Come on, Bob,’ “ Rimmey recalled. When they got to the bridge, they found a pregnant woman in a car near the edge of the break.
“We got a hold of her and got her off the bridge,” he said. “She was scared to death. You couldn’t blame her. It broke off right in front of her. We walked back up on the bridge. There was a Hennis Freight Lines trailer floating down the river and there was a man hanging onto that, and (a fuel company) got a boat and picked him up.
“On the Ohio side, there was a bale of something floating and a man hanging onto it, and they got him. He got way down the river before they got him, because the river was swift. Those were the only two people I saw.”
The pregnant woman was Charlene Wood, who lives in Gallipolis, Ohio.
She was driving a 1967 Pontiac, white with a black vinyl top, and going home after a day of work at the beauty shop and after checking on her parents. They lived in Point Pleasant, and she was on her way home to Ohio.
“As I was approaching the bridge, the light changed. When it went to green, I started over the bridge and there was a terrible shaking of the bridge. My father was a riverboat captain and had talked about barges hitting the bridge and the pier, so when I heard that, I automatically put my car in reverse.”
Her car stalled, and “by the time I got my car stopped, mine was on the very edge where it broke off,” she said.
Because she was pregnant, she tried to keep her cool. She remembered looking around and seeing wires dangling. And she remembered a state patrolman and Rimmey coming to the door of her car and walking her out.
“You could hear (people) screaming. It was terrible,” she said. “By the time I went to the end of the bridge, I had gone into shock.”
She was taken to the hospital. She was released that evening and stayed with her parents.
“It just wasn’t my time to go,” Wood said. “The Lord had something else for me to do. I had twins in April, a boy and a girl. I didn’t know I was going to have twins at the time. The Lord left me here for that, I’m sure of it.”
On the other end of the bridge that night was Betty Fowler Lawson of Scottown, Ohio. She was with her husband at the time, James Fowler, and four others, also on their way from West Virginia to Ohio.
Traffic was stalled. According to reports, there were 37 vehicles on the bridge. Thirty-one fell into the water.
“It was a terrible experience. We knew it was falling. You could hear the racket where it was weaving back and forth,” Lawson said for the 40th anniversary story. “If we could have made it 15 or 20 more feet over, we’d have gotten onto the ramp that didn’t fall, but we fell 20 or 30 feet.”
None of them were hurt, other than a bump on the head.
In getting to safety, “We had to be careful. I could hardly see, I was so nervous,” Lawson recalled. “There were power lines everywhere. People were screaming, and one man was hollering his back was broke.”
She remembered seeing a patrolman who came to the scene and appeared to be in shock.
“I asked him to get help because some of these people (in the water) were living,” Lawson said. “We got out on our own and walked to a phone, and I made a call home before the power went off to report to my family that I was still alive, and all in our car were still OK.”
Her husband has since died, and she has remarried. Many things have changed since then, but one hasn’t.
“It’s been 40 years, and if a bridge is loaded with cars, I stay way back,” she said. “A lot of times, I just get off of it. I just can’t cross. Any bridge, it’s the same thing.”
Steve Darst had that feeling even back in 1967. On the day the bridge fell, he had already been over it, and didn’t waste any time about it.
Darst, of Point Pleasant, took his uncle over the Silver Bridge to the Ohio side. One of the traffic lights wasn’t working, he said, so his 1964 Oldsmobile was stuck for a time on the bridge.
“I didn’t like the feeling. I passed 40-some cars and went through the red light, and other people followed suit,” he said. “I told my uncle, ‘Hang on, I’m going to fly this bridge. It was jammed up on the north side. I probably hit 90, and I didn’t care.”
He had come back over the bridge afterward, quickly, and was at a red light at 6th Street in Point Pleasant when the bridge fell.
“Those eyebars were swinging, almost like clapping their hands,” he said.
He went to tell his wife, Virginia, who was working at an insurance company near the base of the bridge. Then the power went out, and they quickly fled home.
“I decided to get away from the place,” he said. “The Sheriff’s Department across from where my wife worked — they all kicked into high gear. They shut all the telephones down for emergencies only. It was a mess, though.
“A lot of people I knew were on the bridge,” he said. “Four or five that I knew from Goodyear drowned.”
He had nightmares for about two years.
“It ruined Christmas for a long time,” he said. “There was always that in the background. You don’t like to see things like that, but you don’t have control over it so you have to put up with what life throws at you.”
Following the collapse, ferry boats would take people across the Ohio River from Kanauga, Ohio, to Point Pleasant.
Lawson took it to get to work at a furniture store, and for a while, she had dreams about the ferry boat.
“That ferry was scary, too,” she said. “I dreamed of that. It was sinking, and I couldn’t get out.”
Survivors’ guilt was not uncommon. Wood felt it.
“I wondered why I didn’t go in,” she said. “I knew a lot of people there, and everybody was scrambling around wondering where their family members were.”
She paused for a moment, thinking back. Then she summed it up with a simple word used often to describe something that to her is far more than a page in a history book.
“It was a tragedy,” she said.