We owe civil engineers a debt of gratitude for perfecting the design of strong and secure overpasses, as well as regulators and inspectors who bird-dog contractors and governments that don’t follow safety standards established to protect travelers. Americans weren’t always so lucky. Four decades ago, along the banks of the Ohio River, a tiny and preventable maintenance problem led to one of the most gruesome transportation calamities of the automobile era.
The Silver Bridge, named for its aluminum paint job, was a 2,235-foot structure built in 1928 to link Columbus, Ohio with Charleston, West Virginia. The so-called “Gateway to the South” stood, without incident, for 40 years. But time and neglect took its toll on the suspension apparatus. On December 15, 1967 at about 5:00 p.m., local residents within earshot of the river heard a massive bang, like someone had fired a shotgun. (“I thought some nuts were dusting ducks under the bridge,” an 18-year-old gas attendant told Time.) The noise was the fracturing of one of the Silver’s eyebars, the load-bearing bars that run perpendicular to the ground. When the eyebar cracked, the entire bridge went down with it. In just 60 seconds, all 31 vehicles stuck on top tumbled into the freezing water, killing 46 and injuring nine more. On the 40th anniversary of the accident, one of the survivors -- a woman pregnant with twins at the time -- recounted the cinematic horror she endured:
"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."
Historians suggest that “the modern history of bridge inspection" began with the Silver Bridge Collapse. Immediately after the travesty, President Johnson convened three separate task forces to evaluate the effectiveness of existing regulatory practices. From these deliberations, the U.S. Congress established National Bridge Inspection Standards, which mandated an increase in both the frequency of inspections and the number of personnel trained to carry out those probes. And the country’s safety record, save I-35W and a few other altercations, has been pretty solid ever since.
These days, the work of those important bureaucrats is getting more and more difficult. Almost one-quarter of all American bridges are considered either “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete,” and the majority party in the U.S. House is not so keen on making infrastructure investments to fix them up. It might be a matter of time before another skyway accident supplants Silver as the most infamous in U.S. history.