Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Weakest Link

Magnet # 418:  Point Pleasant River Museum

Material:  Plastic

Purchased By:  Me

West Virginia, Ohio, and the rest of the nation were shocked on this day in 1967 when the Silver Bridge collapsed, a disaster that claimed 46 lives.  It had stood since 1928 and had been named after the color of the aluminum paint which covered it - in fact, it was the first bridge in the nation to receive such a paint job.  It connected Point Pleasant, West Virginia with Kanauga, Ohio and, over time, had taken on much more traffic and heavier vehicles than it was ever intended for.  On that chilly evening, the traffic lights were malfunctioning and rush hour and holiday traffic had been effectively trapped on the bridge.  One survivor remembered feeling a quivering as he waited there and his wife wondered what they would do if it collapsed just before their car plunged into the frigid waters.  He escaped, but lost both her and their infant child.  Of the 37 vehicles that were on the bridge, only six did not go down with it.  And some of those who fell into the Ohio River managed to come out alive, a few with the help of heroic witnesses on the shore who ventured in to help them.  It's believed the entire structure took about a minute to collapse.  The tragedy remains the worst bridge disaster in United States history.

After the disaster, people began looking for an explanation as to how it could have occurred, and many suggestions surfaced.  Some thought a flaw in the Silver Bridge had caused its fall, while others maintained that they had heard a "Sonic Boom" at the time of the fall and believed that it destabilized the structure. There were also less conventional explanations given for the accident.  Some thought it might have been brought on by the supposed Curse of Cornstalk, an Indian chief who had gone to American troops in peace, only to be killed.  And others held that a strange creature called Mothman that had been seen in Point Pleasant might have either been responsible, or come to warn of the tragedy.  In fact, The Mothman Prophecies film holds that a cause was never found for the Silver Bridge collapse.  But that simply isn't true.  It was determined that one relatively small eyebar had broken down due to internal corrosion, and it was likely defective ever since it was manufactured and a tiny crack formed in it.  When it broke, no other part of the bridge was able to bear its load, as it was a suspension bridge and all of its parts were intended to be in equilibrium with one another.  It was truly a case of a chain only being as strong as its weakest link.  In the aftermath, a similar bridge upstream in West Virginia was demolished and the government increased its diligence in inspecting and maintaining bridges.  But if we learned anything from the 2007 I-35W bridge in downtown Minneapolis, when 13 died, it's that the country has a long way to go toward definitively ensuring bridge safety.

Parts of the Silver Bridge are now on display at the Point Pleasant River Museum, including a bell which hangs from metal that was shaped into an arch after the collapse.  And on the second floor, there's a scale model of the structure complete with quite a few vehicles that's easily over six feet long.  It's really involved, and very informative.  Plus, the museum has an archive of literature concerning the structure available to its visitors.  But that's hardly the extent of the collection at this small, but very nice attraction.  There's also a working model of a pilot house that could be found on a ship, model ships, maritime memorabilia, and a 2400 gallon aquarium filled with fishes that can be found in the nearby rivers.  I was very impressed when I visited there a couple of months ago, particularly by the staff, which was perhaps the friendliest I encountered during my travels this year.  If you're in the area, stop by and have a look around - their admission is quite reasonable.  It's been open since 2003, and I hope it continues on for a long time.  Not only is it a link to the past tragedies that have played out on the Ohio River and in Point Pleasant, it's also a reminder that better times are likely ahead for this resilient community.

No comments:

Post a Comment