The day the bridge fell

A tractor trailer passes over the Schoharie Creek on a bridge located on the New York state Thruway near Fort Hunter on Wednesday. The Schoharie Creek Bridge suddenly collapsed on April 5, 1987, killing 10, including a Northumberland mother and daughter, a truck driver from Wisconsin and three good friends. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan)

FORT HUNTER — Torrential rains and the musty smell of winter’s end permeated Montgomery County days before and after all hell broke loose that horrific Sunday morning at the Thruway bridge that spanned the Schoharie Creek.

I remember it like it was yesterday, as a young reporter for The Leader-Herald.

Thirty years ago last Wednesday, at 10:51 a.m. on April 5, 1987, the state span collapsed. My managing editor ordered me that afternoon to get to my Buick LeSabre stat and head toward Fort Hunter. The newspaper’s old scanner was still going crazy, but by the time I got there, it was because of a massive a recovery effort.

I wasn’t exactly sure where Fort Hunter was, but early news reports said several motorists died after a bridge collapsed in Montgomery County. A command post near Schoharie Crossing had been set up.

An overwhelming combination of dread and adrenaline pumped through my body. I wanted to find out what happened. During the next several days, former Leader-Herald reporter and colleague Mark McGuire and I, and former staff photographer Harold Laird, reported on what is probably to this day, the biggest story I ever covered.

After passing through the Schoharie Crossing area that April 5 morning, it became quickly apparent that media members would have to do a lot of walking to get to the bridge collapse scene. Cars weren’t being allowed anywhere near. Police let us walk fairly close, but cars had to be parked far from the collapse. Walking through the muck and marshy high grass through the town of Florida, I wasn’t prepared for the glut of emergency personnel on the creek bank and at waters’ edge.

The recovery of bodies was protracted, but the whole world would eventually learn the basic facts.

The center of the 540-foot-long Thruway bridge plunged 84 feet, sending four cars and one truck into the raging waters of the flooded Schoharie Creek. It was caused by foundation scour, authorities said later. Also, a snowmelt combined with a six-inch rainfall produced an estimated 50-year flood on the creek.

Twelve hours before the Schoharie Creek Bridge collapsed, water through the Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage Power Project, 40 miles upstream, hit a historic high. To cope with the overload, the dam released water into the creek, adding to the water volume.

Losing their lives were: friends Edward G. Meyer, 61, of Albany, and Donald F. Hughes, 59, and Robert G. Hoffman, 46, both of DeFreestville, Rensselaer County; Mary Lou Peck, 47, and her daughter Kristen, 22, of Northumberland, Saratoga County; Canadian Shriners Roland Charbonneau and Dr. Jackson Dalton; Douglas Shive, 68, and Evangelina Shive, 70, of Manchester, N.H.; and truck driver John Ninham, 39, of Green Bay, Wis.

At the time of the collapse, one car and one tractor-semitrailer were on the bridge. Before the road could be blocked off, three more cars drove into the gap. During the following three weeks, nine bodies were recovered from the river. The body of the 10th victim was recovered from the Mohawk River in July 1989.

When I got to the collapse scene, I could see Laird already traversing along the hilly gorge of the creek area, getting as close as he could to photograph the huge broken bridge. I immediately started asking any EMS authorities I could find what happened. Police high up on my left side of the creek told me they didn’t know much, but were still evaluating the extent of destruction and death. Across the way, the creek’s edge was populated by a variety of state police members, divers and Montgomery County emergency personnel.

Just walking around the area was dangerous in itself, and a certain anxiety for all involved filled the air.

I remember it being extremely quiet — absent the sound of the white creek rapids — as divers continued through the day and methodically pulled bodies out of the creek. I could see a body bag lowered to the creek and salvage crews slowly began to lift vehicles from the scene.

The solemnity of the scene at the creek was actually perfect. Police, media and spectators knew something terrible had happened, but no one wanted to talk too loud for fear of purposely disrupting the holy solitude. Along the way, I compared notes with news reporters from all over the world, such as The New York Times and The Associates Press. Everyone was trying to get whatever scraps of information we could.

Searchers would go underwater for long periods of time. I remember hearing one diver yelling to his superiors at it was too dangerous at one point.

Of course, the story eventually took on a life of its own. There were of course the victims, the saga of late farmer Walt Dufel who owned land nearby off Route 5-S and who fought the state over access to his land, and of course the reasons why the whole thing happened. McGuire wrote most of the eventual, excellent stories for The Leader-Herald on the collapse aftermath. Especially colorful was his coverage of the taking down of the rest of the bridge.

The cause was determined to be a failure to properly design, build and maintain the bridge. Built in the 1950s, the bridge’s supports had concrete footings dug 6 feet into the riverbed, instead of piles driven into the bedrock — needed because the riverbed soil was vulnerable to washing away.

Though the design called for footings to be buried in a deep layer of stone held in place by metal sheeting, neither was installed, and a thinner layer of riprap around the footings was improperly maintained.

The failure of the Schoharie Creek Bridge eventually motivated improvement in bridge design and inspection procedures.

Current Leader-Herald photographer Bill Trojan and I revisited the collapse area on Wednesday, the 30th anniversary. Ironically, Wednesday was very brisk, slightly windy and overcast with grey and black skies just like April 5, 1987. A big difference — no one was there. Traffic was smartly proceeding over the new Thruway bridge that replaced the old one.

Another big difference was you couldn’t get to the immediate collapse scene as easy. Even though some roads and pathways were created by the state since the collapse, many areas were blocked off with fences. The creek waters are still flowing high, but now the public has to look at the collapse area from a far away vantage point at the Strevy Lane overpass. It’s almost as if authorities are saying no human beings really belong here anymore.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at [email protected]

By Patricia Older

Leave a Reply