POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — Though it felt like a spring evening, this past Wednesday thoughts drifted back to Dec. 15, 1967, a cold winter night when the Silver Bridge collapsed into the Ohio River, taking the lives of 46 people.
The memorial observance to remember these victims once again took place in downtown Point Pleasant, at the memorial for the Silver Bridge on Sixth and Main streets.
“We will never forget them,” Point Pleasant Mayor Brian Billings said. “We will never forget their families and those who remain today in this great city; their siblings, their grandchildren…we will never, I promise you, forget those that we lost that day.
“Tragedy strikes at anytime, at any place, anywhere, as we all know what took place in Kentucky and several other states,” Billings said about recent devastating tornadoes. “What has happened there, it’s near Christmastime, just like here in Point Pleasant [in 1967]. It’s a sad time, we had people rush in, people come in and help us [then]…”
Billings noted there were several people in Point Pleasant and surrounding communities who were attempting to help those feeling the effects of those deadly tornadoes, including local churches and organizations.
“Please remember those people in your prayers,” Mayor Billings said, reminding those gathered of the prayers strangers said for Point Pleasant and the surrounding area 54 years ago, including across the Ohio River in Gallia County, and north to Meigs County, Ohio.
Included in the mayor’s remarks was the late Jack Flower and how Fowler was a faithful attendee of the memorial services and “reminded what took place” when he spoke of the tragedy along the river. The mayor also mentioned the late Carolin Harris, a downtown business owner who lost a son who was on the bridge with his father when it fell. He remembered Harris at the first memorial observance, pausing before reading the name of her three-year old child — James T. Meadows.
Point Pleasant Fire Chief Jeremy Bryant who represented first responders also spoke, introducing Cain Nott, the special guest who lit the memorial tree. Nott is the son of Kevin and Nicole Nott and Cain lit the tree as a representative of his family. Bryant spoke about Kevin’s contributions to the community, and his role in the committee that began the memorial observances, providing the sound when he was the manager of WBYG Radio.
“We ask that you keep him [Kevin] in your continuous prayers,” Bryant said.
The ceremony included musical performances by Cody Smith of South Webster, Ohio and a prayer by Rev. Ted Nance of Pleasant View Church.
Also, the names of each victim were read by State Senator Amy Grady and Mason County Commissioners Rick Handley and Sam Nibert. Grady asked for a moment of silence for each victim, prior to the reading of names.
Billings also recognized the work of Kenny Grady who started the memorial observance in 2015. The ceremony includes a partnership with officials from the City of Point Pleasant, and participation from the Mason County Commission, including Commissioner Tracy Doolittle who has assisted with the ceremony since it began, Kim Harbour from the commission office, and other volunteers.
Attending the service from Gallia County was the President of the Gallia County Board of Commissioners Harold Montgomery.
“I think it’s [the annual service] very important to our community, as we are a community on both sides of the river,” Montgomery said to Ohio Valley Publishing. “We all had a great loss that day and as we travel back and forth, and we have withstood and endured together…I’m very thankful Mason County has continued to hold this memorial service.”
Resting at the base of the memorial tree, 46 angels on wooden crosses bear the names of each victim, all on the lawn of the Mason County Courthouse near the Silver Bridge Memorial.
Looking back at eyewitness accounts
The Saturday, Dec. 16, 1967 special edition of the Point Pleasant Register reveals a front page that seemed to be unfolding by the minute during a time when getting the news out, wasn’t easy or quick.
The edition recounts eyewitness accounts, including that of Paul Scott, then age 51, of Middleport, Ohio. His account was reported as follows:
“I was in the car. The bridge toppled to one side. We were near the middle of the water going toward Kanauga. I was with J.O. (James) Pullen of Middleport and F.D. (Frederick) Miller of Gallipolis. I don’t know if they made it or not. We work for New York Central. I’m a trainman at Institute, W.Va. The bridge was shaking, once too often. It went to the left, and then to the right, and it never came back, it just kept going. We went down right with the rest of the scrabble. It was a long way. I couldn’t understand why I made it. I didn’t think I could. I thought ‘this is it.’ Then my head popped up (to the surface of the river). I got hold of a barrel but I couldn’t get on top of it. I was hanging on when the boat rescued me. I want to thank them all, especially the group that got us out. I have to get out of the hospital. My daughter (Carol) is getting married on the 30th.”
Both Pullen and Miller, whom Scott was traveling with, were killed in the tragedy.
Another eyewitness interviewed at the time of the collapse was Howard Boggs, then age 24 of Porter, Ohio.
“We (he and his 17-year old wife, Marjorie Evans Boggs, and 18-month old daughter Kristy) were at the top of the bridge, going toward Ohio. It started to shake up and down and that was it. I was stopped in the line of traffic. I don’t know how I got out. I caught hold of something. The City Ice and Fuel boat brought me in. I couldn’t swim.”
Boggs’ wife and daughter were not rescued with him and perished in the disaster.
Another eyewitness interviewed by the Point Pleasant Register was W.M. “Bill” Needham Jr., then 27 of Ashboro, N.C.
“We were stopped on the bridge, about the center. Our Roadway truck was loaded with miscellaneous things. The passenger with me didn’t seem to move at any time. As I pulled up and stopped behind the first Roadway truck; I had stopped dead still; the truck tipped to the right hand side, and the bridge collapsed. It happened so fast the only thing I can recall right here is that I started to pray. We all headed for the water. I could see the steel beams before us. We hit the water and the truck sank like a rock.
On instinct, I knew the windows were up and there would be an air pocket for awhile. I held my breath and, knowing the door couldn’t be opened with all that pressure, I tried to find the window knob but couldn’t. Then I panicked and knew that was it. When I found out I couldn’t get the window down, I kept reaching. I found one window a half to three-quarters of the way down. I forced it down and that’s how I got this (show his right wrist had been cut). And that’s how I escaped. I didn’t know how far I had to go up. But I could tell the water kept getting lighter. When I got to the top, my back hurt and I reached for a box floating by. But there was not enough buoyancy to hold me up. I saw a larger box that might hold me. I couldn’t move my feet, so I peddled with my hands to the box and then hollered for help. The boat picked me up about 15 minutes later or maybe it was five minutes, but it seemed longer. The box saved my life. I couldn’t move my legs and I couldn’t have lasted too long. I am married and have three kids, ages 6, 8 and 10. I won’t make it home for Christmas but I am happy to be alive. But I’ll participate in a different kind of Christmas this year.”
Also telling the Register his story was Frank Wamsley of Point Pleasant, then 28 years old.
“I was in a James Merry Stone truck near the top of the bridge. We were moving at the time, but traffic in front of us was stopped. The first thing I noticed was that the bridge was leaning to the right and just rolling. We fell and the truck went to the bottom of the river. I don’t know how I got out. For a minute I didn’t think I would. Then I got hold of something, maybe a piece of bridge, and swam to the top. I made it to a barrel of cotton or something. I held on to it. They picked me up. I couldn’t swim to shore, I couldn’t move my legs. I have a wife, Margaret, and two children, ages 4 and 2, and I didn’t think I was going to see them again either. It was a bad experience. If all those trucks (five) hadn’t been there, I don’t think it would’ve gone. Another man was driving, I don’t know his name, we called him ‘Red.’ There were four or five men in the water holding onto stuff. It didn’t take us very long to get down there (into the river) though. We had a load of gravel, about 32,000 pounds. I still don’t know how I got out of there.”
© 2021 Ohio Valley Publishing, all rights reserved.
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing.