CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Division of Highways marked the 55th anniversary Thursday of the collapse of the Silver Bridge at Point Pleasant, the deadliest bridge disaster in modern history.
The 2,200-foot bridge connecting Point Pleasant and Gallipolis fell during rush hour traffic shortly before 5 p.m. Dec. 15, 1967, into the freezing Ohio River killing 46 people. The event directly led to federal regulations on the inspection of bridges and an increased emphasis on bridge safety.
“One of the main reasons I became a bridge engineer was to make sure something like the Silver Bridge collapse never, ever happened again,” said Tracy Brown, P.E., Division of Highways state bridge engineer.
The tragedy led to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1968, which established a National Bridge Inspection Program which created bridge inspection standards still in use today.
“Over the past 50 years, that law has saved countless lives by standardizing bridge inspection processes nationwide,” Brown said.
The Silver Bridge was constructed using steel eyebars, which supported the bridge from above like a giant bicycle chain, but the bridge had a fatal flaw. While many eyebar bridges of the time had several chains on either side to provide redundancy, the Silver bridge had only one chain on each side of the span to hold up the bridge decking.
The bridge collapse was traced to the failure of a single link in the chain from a stress crack that would have been difficult for inspectors to have spotted.
“At the West Virginia Division of Highways, every time we train new bridge inspectors, we talk about the Silver Bridge,” Brown said. “It is the reason we do what we do. If you’re related to the bridge industry in some way in your career, it’s not just a career or a job. It’s a mission you’re on to keep this from ever happening again.”
On Dec. 15, 2019, a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark plaque was dedicated at the site where the Silver Bridge once stood, in sight of a remembrance mural by artist Jesse Corlis that depicts the bridge. The DOH placed a portion of the original bridge deck beneath the plaque.
“The Silver Bridge is always in the forefront of our minds and it’s our job to make sure no one ever has to go through what those families went through,” Brown said.