Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Not necessarily.
A little over a year ago, I had the opportunity to interview one of the last, living survivors of the Silver Bridge Disaster, William Edmondson. Edmondson, from King, North Carolina, was in Point Pleasant for the 50th anniversary and observance of the tragedy which took the lives of 46 people. I first saw him at the official ceremony of remembrance held downtown, though I couldn’t get near him, with well-wishers and other media surrounding him in layers of humanity and cell phone cameras. Later that same day, I received the special gift of being able to sit down with him in a quiet room at the Point Pleasant River Museum and Learning Center, to hear his story. Our lives intersected in that moment with the help of staff from the river museum who knew I wanted to speak with him and they made it happen.
I spent at least an hour with Mr. Edmondson, asking him about why he ended up on the bridge and how he survived its collapse into the frigid water on Dec. 15, 1967. With a good-humored graciousness, he took me through his story – from the moment his tractor trailer hit the Ohio River, to the memory of his rescue onto a tow boat. During our conversation, a woman politely stepped into the museum’s library to tell Edmondson goodbye. They clearly knew one another but it took me a moment to put the pieces together. Turns out, the woman was an adult daughter of Edmondson’s driving partner that day on the bridge, Harold Cundiff, who did not survive. The daughter, Gina Cocklereece of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, had apparently searched for Edmondson over the years with no luck, though through perhaps Divine Providence they were literally brought together via their separate visits to the river museum just prior to the 50th anniversary, last year. In another twist of fate, these people who were uniquely touched by the tragedy, were living their lives only about 15 minutes apart in different towns in North Carolina. Still, it took the home port (and staff) of the river museum to connect the dots and literally connect the families that shared this rare bond.
As many know, the river museum suffered a devastating fire this summer. The original building, dating back to 1883, will have to be demolished. Many photos, books and documents in the third floor attic and the second floor library where Mr. Edmondson and I visited that day, were destroyed or damaged. Still, many other contents were saved though they required cleaning and are being temporarily stored at facilities in Chillicothe, Columbus and at the museum’s temporary home in the 200-block of Main Street in downtown Point Pleasant.
The contents and archives are currently scattered, reminiscent of Mr. Edmondson and the family of his driving partner, or like many others who come to the river museum with a story the staff connects to another and another, like thread stretched across a bulletin board of ideas and purpose. Life truly does intersect along the river in a place that is about more than the contents but the context. This is the purpose of the river museum, or any museum worth its salt. After all, if you don’t understand the contents, how can it have meaning to you or anyone else?
That day, as Mr. Edmondson and I ended our visit, he exited the library while his daughter-in-law took me aside and told me he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and was facing hospice. My heart sank into my stomach for this man who was a survivor; a man who told me he wanted to make it to 88, because that was Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s car number; a man who told me about a bird that landed near him as he floated in the icy waters of the Ohio River and how some felt the bird was an angel, encouraging him to hold on…something he wouldn’t deny. I will never forget that day, or him, as our lives intersected at the museum. He died this past April and I knew about it because the staff at the river museum told me first, putting human context to the contents they have been entrusted to preserve.
About his journey to survive, Edmondson said to me, “I mean, everything had to fall right in place to the second, or I wouldn’t be here. It was that close. It’s just unreal.” His sentiment could be applied to the day of the fire at the river museum, where everyone made it out and because staff were there to call for help (as opposed to after hours), so much more was saved. Someone was there along the river to take note of what was happening and to see the value in saving history.
In case you’re wondering, the river museum staff, though displaced, are still there to take care of the contents and provide context, as plans for a new home take shape, hopefully in 2019.
Often when bad things happen, survivors want to put the event behind them, and rightfully so, but the fact remains, they survived. Survival will always be the foundation for the future.
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing which includes the Gallipolis Daily Tribune, The Daily Sentinel, Point Pleasant Register and Sunday Times-Sentinel. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 740-446-2342, extension 2102.