MASON COUNTY — They say time heals all wounds, but it does little to alleviate remembering what left the scar.
Last weekend was the 45th anniversary of the Silver Bridge Disaster where 46 innocent people, who were waiting to cross the Ohio River, lost their lives.
For months, staff at the Point Pleasant River Museum have been planning an observance of the anniversary meant to focus on the victims, not just the tragedy.
Last weekend’s ceremony began with an introduction by Jack Fowler of the museum who remarked at the standing-room-only crowd Fowler then introduced Rev. Roger Bonecutter who worked for City Ice and Fuel at the time the bridge fell. Bonecutter opened the remembrance event with a prayer which gave special mention to the lives affected by the Newtown, Conn. tragedy.
“We of all people should be able to sympathize with them,” Bonecutter said about the two tragedies which took innocent lives.
Bonecutter then introduced his wife, Denise, who spoke about being a young child in Michigan when the bridge went down. She said she remembered gathering around the television to hear about this place in West Virginia which was experiencing the unthinkable - making a parallel to the Newtown tragedy. Denise then sang a song about finding certainty in a world of uncertainty, namely, God.
Roger then spoke about crossing the Silver Bridge at 5 a.m. the morning it fell on his way to see family in Illinois for Christmas. He no sooner got to his destination that he heard about the bridge falling on AM radio, recalling the Huntley-Brinkley news program referred to Point Pleasant as Mount Pleasant and there were a lot of news people who had trouble pronouncing “Gallipolis.”
Roger said he quickly drove back home after the disaster and found it “unreal” to find he couldn’t cross the Ohio River along U.S. 35. He spoke about the workers for City Ice and Fuel who were on a shift change when the bridge fell and how they assisted in recovery efforts; how the Hartley family, which owns City Ice and Fuel, basically donated boats and fuel. Roger added many businesses and individuals donated what they could and just wanted an excuse to help.
Roger said what he remembered most about that time in his life, which was spent ferrying people and dignitaries to the disaster scene, was the people standing along the river banks, looking for loved ones, crying, at a loss for words. He spoke about the engineers and inspectors who put the old bridge “meticulously” back together piece by piece to determine what caused it to fail. He spoke about learning from mistakes and how the Silver Bridge Disaster resulted in mandatory bridge inspections across the country.
Next up was Jim Naegel who worked for the U.S. Coast Guard at the time of the disaster. Naegel, who was in Henderson at the time, remembered hearing the “boom” when the bridge fell. Not too long after, he got a call from coast guard staff that he was needed at the river bank because “the bridge fell.” His first thought was the old Shadle Bridge went down. Naegel and his colleges spent the next 63 days on a search and recovery mission in the area. Naegel said on the day he and his colleges found the last unaccounted for vehicle in the river, it was a day so cold the ink froze in the pens. That was the day Naegel said the Boggs family was found with the car in nearly pristine condition. Naegel and his collages were also the ones to find the last victim that following June. Two of the victims were never found.
Like Roger, Naegel also spoke about the community trying to help in any way possible, saying at one point there was a request for empty bleach bottles to be used to mark items in the water. Naegel said soon after a large pile of bottles appeared, as did volunteers with the American Red Cross which provided Naegel and his crew with coffee, donuts and, he joked, cigarettes - the latter of which would likely be unheard of in this day and age.
Naegel was also one of the first to know what caused the collapse, overhearing the engineers who were on his vessel as they spoke about the weakened eyebar that caused the demise of the structure.
Also speaking were sisters Ruth and Martha Fout who have spent years collecting Silver Bridge memorabilia for the museum’s substantial archive. The sisters also recently co-authored the book “The Silver Bridge Disaster of 1967” with Professor Stephan Bullard and his undergraduate student, Bridget Gromek.
When speaking, Ruth became visibly emotional, speaking directly to the families and thanking them for making contact over the years.
“We want to honor the families today,” Ruth said. “You’ve become a part of my life since working here.”
Martha echoed a similar sentiment of thanks to the families just prior to Bullard and Gromek being introduced. Bullard and Gromek are both residents of Connecticut and Bullard said it was inspiring to see how a community came together when faced with tragedy - again, drawing parallels to Newtown, Conn.
With the Newtown tragedy fresh in the minds of those who were revisiting the bridge tragedy, it gave pause to the question of “why” these things happen? Roger said there is a tendency by some to blame God in the face of the unspeakable but rather than blame God, Roger quoted Scripture to the crowd, citing Ecclesiastes 9:11 - “Time and change happen to all.”
The ceremony ended with Mayor Brian Billings and Alice Click reading the names of the 46 victims as their photos were displayed and family lit a candle in their memory. When family wasn’t available, the daughter of Roger and Denise Bonecutter lit the candle in their honor.