CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Truck driver Bill Needham braced for death at the bottom of the Ohio River after a bridge collapse 50 years ago in West Virginia sent his rig and dozens of other vehicles into the frigid waters.
A crucial joint in the 39-year-old Silver Bridge’s eyebar suspension system snapped from years of corrosion and neglect, and the normal vibrations of heavy rush-hour traffic on U.S. Route 35 shook it apart on Dec. 15, 1967. Cars and trucks that had been stuck in traffic on the bridge due to a malfunctioning traffic light tumbled into the river at Point Pleasant, and 46 people perished.
Needham thought he’d be among them.
“I expected to be killed. I really did,” Needham said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Asheboro, North Carolina.
Desperate and determined, Needham tugged a window down far enough to slide out as the truck sank to the bottom of the river. Then 27, Needham made his way to the river’s surface and found a floating box to grab onto.
Rescuers in tugboats pulled him out of the water. He was hospitalized with a broken back. Needham’s truck driving partner, asleep in the cab’s rear, didn’t make it out.
U.S. Sen. Jennings Randolph, chairman of the Senate Public Works Committee, immediately launched hearings into the collapse of the bridge, which hadn’t been thoroughly inspected in 16 years, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The hearings led to the first federal requirements mandating bridge inspections at least every two years. Since 1988, federal standards have required submerged elements of all bridges with substructures in water must be inspected at regular intervals not exceeding five years. Guidance issued last May allows for underwater inspections every six years on lower-risk bridges when adhering to Federal Highway Administration-approved criteria.
“The Silver Bridge collapse was a national wake-up call and inspired a much more aggressive effort to inspect and maintain bridges across the country,” acting Federal Highway Administrator Brandye L. Hendrickson said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. “In fact, this tragedy propelled the nation into a new era” of bridge safety. Federal data shows that while nearly one-fourth of the nation’s 611,000 bridges were either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete in 2015, that’s a drop from more than 30 percent in 2000. Most structurally deficient bridges are in rural areas.
President Donald Trump has said he’s working to streamline the permit process to get major infrastructure projects like roadways and bridges finished faster. A $1 trillion overhaul of the nation’s roads and bridges is a key item on his domestic agenda — but one that’s gained little traction.
Interstate highway construction accelerated during the 1950s and early 1960s. Now, bridges along major highways “are coming to the point where they’re going to need significant rehabilitation, or in some cases, replacement,” said Rocky Moretti, director of policy and research for Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit transportation research group TRIP.
Federal data shows there are about 73,000 bridges nationwide at least 75 years old, including 12,241 past the century mark. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, bridges are typically constructed with a design life of 50 years, and those built from 1957 to 1976 show the greatest need for maintenance, reconditioning or replacement.
In about a dozen states, including West Virginia, 30 percent or more of their bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. In October, state voters passed a $1.6 billion bond referendum for road and bridge repairs and construction.
Needham returned to work in 1968 and continued his North Carolina-to-Ohio route for the next eight years, carrying him over the Silver Memorial Bridge, built in 1969 a few hundred yards downstream from the old bridge.
The new bridge “was built as strong as the Rock of Gibraltar,” Needham said.
Officials plan to mark today’s anniversary of the Silver Bridge collapse with a ceremony. Needham said he once had a closet full of newspapers with stories about the collapse. But no longer.
“I just threw them all away,” he said. “I wanted to wipe myself away from it.”