The Silver Bridge Disaster

Silver Memorial Bridge over the Ohio River

Note: I do not believe that the paranormal entity known as Mothman had anything to do with the Silver Bridge collapse. This article is not about the diaster and it’s connection with Mothman, but a memorial to those who perished that fateful day. If the desire is to read about Mothman, that information can be found here: Mothman.

When John Keel wrote The Mothman Prophecies, he would forever link the deadliest bridge collapse in the United States to a piece of West Virginia folklore. Despite countless documents stating what happened that deadly day in 1967, the event is mostly known to the world as the end result of the Mothman appearances.

I paused at the vehicle to say I was going to take a short walk, before turning onto Main Street. I pulled my coat tighter as the wind whipped around me. At the junction of Main and Sixth Streets, a small memorial park stands. The white West Virginia Historical Marker remembers the tragedy that happened here in the winter of 1967. A couple steps away, a small memorial marks the spot of the tragedy that affected the region and still lingers in the minds of the survivors and the friends and families of those who perished that afternoon. When the Silver Bridge collapsed late in the day on December 15, 1967, it changed the way bridges were constructed and inspected, but unfortunately this change in national standards came at the cost of forty-six lives.

Erected in 1928, the Silver Bridge spanned the Ohio River between Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and Kanauga, Ohio. The bridge, which received its name from the metallic paint used, carried more than four thousand cars daily over the Ohio River. It was designed by the J.E. Greiner Company and erected by the Gallia County Ohio River Bridge Company and the American Bridge Company. It was a 1,760-foot-long eyebar suspension bridge with the main span being seven hundred feet in length and two 380-foot-long anchor spans.

The bridge originally called for cables, but instead was built using eyebars, which was a cheaper alternative. Eyebars were long steel plates, that were two inches thick and were forty-four to fifty-five feet in length. The ends of the eyebars had loops – known as eyes – which allowed them to be connected to the next eyebars with eleven-inch pins, forming a chain to support the bridge. The Silver Bridge was not the first one to use an eyebar design, however, other bridges were either 1) shorter in length or 2) used as many as eight eyebars in a section, whereas the Silver Bridge only used two per section. Note: think of a bicycle chain and how the pieces of it are linked together. This is very similar to the way eyebars were connected to form a supporting chain.

Although it opened as a toll bridge, it was welcomed by residents as it saved them time crossing the river. Before the Silver Bridge, if one wanted to cross the Ohio River, it was either a fifteen-minute drive upriver, or an even longer drive downriver to Huntington. However, from the beginning, commuters noted that the bridge shook and swayed as cars passed over it.

In 1941, the bridge was purchased by the state of West Virginia and in December 1951, became toll-free. Repairs were recommended by a state inspection in 1965 and those repairs were done. More inspections were done in the summer of 1967 and a final visit by a state engineer was made on December 6.

On December 15, at five in the afternoon, the bridge was filled with traffic as commuters and shoppers preparing for the holiday season, were making their way home. One of the eyebars had cracked and the result was devastating. The bridge, which was already swaying badly, suddenly tilted wildly. The chain of eyebars – weakened by one – suddenly gave way and the bridge collapsed, sending thirty-one cars into the freezing waters of the Ohio River. The whole tragedy took mere seconds.

Within the vehicles flung into the river, there were sixty-four people. People struggled to get free and some succeeded. However, forty-six innocent lives perished and unfortunately two of those victims were never recovered.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, its sister bridge at St. Marys, West Virginia, roughly one hundred miles upriver, was closed. This bridge was built at the same time as the Silver Bridge with the same design and there was a fear this bridge too would collapse. Three years after the collapse of the Silver Bridge, the bridge at St. Marys would be demolished.

As a result of the tragedy, President Lyndon Johnson formed the Task Force on Bridge Safety to investigate the cause of the disaster. The problem was a small stress crack – only three millimeters deep – located within a loop on eyebar 330, which was near the Ohio side of the bridge. On December 15, with the bridge under the strain of the holiday traffic, the crack went critical, snapping the eye loop in two. Due to all the eyebars being connected, the failure of one caused all the others to fail. As the chain of eyebars failed, there was no support for the bridge and it fell into the freezing waters of the Ohio River.

It is believed that the crack formed around an impurity within the steel and had been there since the eyebar had been created. Years of weathering, mixed with movement caused by the vehicles on the bridge, and the additional weight of modern vehicles allowed the crack to deepen to the point of critical failure.

The conclusion was even more alarming, when it was revealed there was no way to have prevented the collapse. The only way engineers would have discovered the defective eyebar loop would have been to completely tear the joint apart, which was impossible.

The Silver Bridge disaster would create the National Bridge Inspection Standards. This would require all public bridges with a span of more than twenty feet to be examined every two years. If the bridge was determined to be high risk, it would then be examined more often until it was repaired.

On December 15, 1969, two years to the day of the collapse, the Silver Memorial Bridge was opened for traffic roughly a mile down river from where the Silver Bridge once stood.

“You done?” I heard my mother’s voice ask. I had not realized she had moved the vehicle while I was remembering the deadly bridge collapse. I merely nodded, unable to find the words as I climbed into the warmth of the vehicle. As we left Point Pleasant, I left the tragedy behind, remembering those who lost their lives and those whose lives were forever affected by the collapse of the Silver Bridge.

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