Saturday, April 4, 2020

Book Review | The Silver Bridge Disaster of 1967


Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

It was probably really stupid of me to read this because I really hate bridges. Gephyrophobia is a thing and it is the scientific name for people like me who have major bridge-phobia. I hate driving over them and under them and I ESPECIALLY hate being stopped under or on one in traffic. I am so glad I do not have to regularly drive on the interstate anymore to get to work, because so much about bridges are super stressful to me. I am not sure when this fear started, but it was heightened exponentially in August of 2007 when the I35W Mississippi Rover Bridge in Minneapolis collapsed during rush hour. I've driven over that bridge a million times in my life, and the same goes for many of my family members. What made that night even worse was that it was nearly impossible to get a hold of ANYONE in my family, as I was living in Nebraska by then. Every phone I called, whether it was a land line or a cell phone just gave me a busy signal and it was like that for HOURS. I watched footage over and over of the collapse and rescue efforts and had to wait anxiously to make sure all my loved ones were safe. Luckily they were not among the killed, but that still means that dozens other families and friends were left to grieve.

Such grief is what so many families in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and Kanauga and Gallipolis, Ohio and beyond had to deal with just ten days before Christmas in 1967. The bridge was completed in 1928, considered an engineering marvel at the time of its construction. During rush hour nearly 40 years later the bridge collapsed, trapping or killing travelers instantly as vehicles plunged into the freezing cold water of the Ohio River below. Rescue attempts commenced immediately, but the job was made difficult by the coming nightfall, and terrible weather for the following days. Rescue also quickly turned to recovery, as the water temperatures made it difficult to survive very long. In the end, 46 people died that day due to faulty design that in hindsight seems so obvious. The bridge supports were constructed with an eyebar designed, but because of the way the eyebars linked together, parts were hidden by the next link; even when the bridge was inspected for safety, corrosion and cracks went undetected. Combined with the weight of rush hour traffic that December night, an eyebar finally gave way on the Ohio side of the bridge, causing all the others in the chain to immediately fail as well.

I did not read the cover very carefully at first, and did not realize this book was part of a series called 'Images of America'. At first it struck me as odd that there were SO MANY photos with extensive captions, but very little blocks of text. However, once I figured that out, the organization of information made a lot more sense.

This is a quick read, but even then it is still packed with information and photographs from the disaster, as well as of the victims, which were graciously donated by their families. This short history details the life of the bridge, starting with its construction in 1927-1928 and through the investigation. Each chapter begins with a short summary of a few paragraphs, and then begins the photos with the captions explaining each picture. Even with the story being told largely through the photos and captions, I don't feel like it was lacking in any information or details. We see both the before and after, and how the communities responded to the disaster.

There was one statement early on, around 9%, that said, "Thankfully, bridge collapses are rare. Most bridges are well-built, well maintained, and perfectly safe." That is partially true, but after the 2007 collapse of I35W that I mentioned above, inspections showed that numerous bridges have been found deficient and in need of repair. I did some research on this while writing this review and found statistics from 2019 that roughly 47,000 bridges in the US are 'structurally deficient'. You can check out the NPR article here if you are interested in reading more. Basically, almost 10% of the bridges in the US are not safe. That's a lot, to me at least. Our infrastructure is crumbling and we need to make these repairs as soon as possible.

Here are a few quotes I highlighted that were of interest

"A total of 38 vehicles were on the bridge at the time. Of these, 31 fell into the river or became enmeshed in a debris pile on the Ohio shoreline. The other seven were on the bridge approach and did not fall. In all, 64 people fell with the bridge, 46 of whom were killed. Each victim faced their own personal hell during the disaster. About 80% of the who died drowned. The other died from severe trauma. Two victims disappeared into the river and were never recovered" (26%).

"In many cases, victims' bodies were not removed from the vehicles until they were out of the water, so special care had to be taken during recovery to make sure the vehicles were handled as gently as possible" (56%). I can't even imagine having that job, of pulling the vehicles from the river.

"Photographs of the bodies were not permitted. Official government photographers did not take pictures of the victims, and police asked civilians not to photograph vehicles with bodies inside. When an overzealous cameraman ignored this request, a frustrated deputy threw the man's camera into the river" (58%). Good! How disgusting. People can be such vultures.

Overall, this was an engaging account of a tragedy that could have been prevented. The mistake seems so obvious to us now, parts of the structure unable to be viewed by inspectors - how could this happen?! But at the time this design was considered innovative and state-of-the-art.



  1. I have enjoyed many of those Images of America books, especially the ones about cities. Good for research and memory and the quality is high. We sold them like hotcakes at the bookstore where I used to work. I can certainly understand your bridge phobia. Hopefully bridge safety inspections, especially of older bridges, have become more savvy.

    1. It is a new series to me - I think anyway. I can't recall any others off the top of my head. Agreed about the quality. I was pretty impressed with how much info was in the book for it being such a slim volume.


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