Montgomery County

“Never in a million years”: First responder remembers bridge collapse

STAN HUDY/THE DAILY GAZETTE
Vehicles travel westbound on the I-90 thruway bridge crossing over the Schoharie Creek in the Town of Florida Monday, April 4, 2022. The bridge collapsed on April 5, 1987 killing 10 people.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
STAN HUDY/THE DAILY GAZETTE Vehicles travel westbound on the I-90 thruway bridge crossing over the Schoharie Creek in the Town of Florida Monday, April 4, 2022. The bridge collapsed on April 5, 1987 killing 10 people.

“What did you say?”

Richard Emery, now a colonel working at Saratoga County Jail, remembers his father then-Montgomery County Sheriff Ronald Emery responding back to the dispatcher next to Richard in the office communication’s center on April 5, 1987.

“The Thruway bridge collapsed, Sheriff,” she repeated back.

The younger Emery, 25 and a four-year deputy sheriff at the time, was in the office that Sunday morning – called in on his usual day off – ready to assist with the flooding already in progress throughout the Schoharie Valley. When the initial call came in about the tragedy many simply know now as the “Schoharie Bridge collapse,” he and the dispatcher shared a look of disbelief that moments later his father verbalized

It would be 27 months until New York state police recovered the final of 10 victims lost in the Fort Hunter tragedy.

Ronald Emery and some deputies were already out evacuating some residents from Lost Valley in the town of Florida when that dispatch went out. County Fire Coordinator Dick Hanson, who lived in Tribes Hill, was close by and quick to the scene. Richard, however, in his second year as a member of the dive team, says he grabbed his gear, threw it in the back of a patrol car at the old sheriff’s office in Fonda and headed toward Amsterdam via Route 5.

Richard Emery pointed out the Schoharie floods most springs to some extent depending on the amount of rain, snowpack, and how the snow melts in from the Catskills, as the creek runs south to north into the Mohawk River. In April 1987, it was just a dangerous mix.

“We knew the day before that there was going to be flooding,” he said. “But no one could imagine that it was going to be to this degree.”

In fact, the bridge south of the Thruway bridge – in Middle Point – was closed the morning of the fifth as a result of flooding and worries it could fail, according to Emery. It remained standing through the day, he said, but would collapse within the next week, but not as a direct cause of the April 5 flooding. No one imagined the Thruway bridge would be the one to go down, “not in a million years,” he said.

“And the reason being is that it had just been inspected. You know? A couple, two years prior to that it was deemed to be safe,” Emery said. “And as a result, there wasn’t a need to close it. Because no one ever thought that would happen.”

That being said, Emery said he had never seen water run through the Schoharie Creek like he did that day, and he hasn’t seen flooding anywhere like that since – still assisting with the Saratoga County department’s diving team today. As he had been driving down the hill toward the scene, all he saw was the first large gap. As he got closer, he joined others standing in shock.

At that point, it was like, ‘You know what, we’re gonna have to wait, we’re gonna have to wait ’til the water recedes. And we’re gonna have to come up with, you know, a game plan to start recovering some of the victims.’” 

Current Montgomery County Sheriff Jeffery Smith was 18 and a year away from joining the department at the time of the incident. He remembers watching it on the news from home in Fort Plain and finding it all hard to understand at times as a person not directly involved. But, today, he thinks about the magnitude of what Sheriff Ronald Emery was facing 35 years ago.

“The destruction we’ve seen in this county from water — alone — over time and over history has been astronomical,” Smith said over the phone Monday. “You drive over that bridge, right? We all do — the new bridge. We drive over there all the time. There’s not a time that I go over it that I don’t think, holy, holy cow, can you imagine, the bridge going down?”

According to a statement from the state Department of Transportation, the state and federal government “adopted more stringent standards governing the construction, maintenance and inspection of highway bridges,” following the bridge collapse. The statement also says the department “has had one of the most comprehensive and rigorous bridge inspection programs in the nation,” since 1988 – the year following the tragedy. According to state DOT, this includes requiring all highway bridges be checked at least every two years by a team led by a licensed professional engineer that has undergone “specialized training.”

Beyond inspecting what’s already in place, state DOT says it has invested $329 million to repair, rehabilitate or replace bridges in the Capital Region during the past five years, and Gov. Hochul’s department capital plan includes funding for the renewal and modernization of our state’s roads and bridges, including direct aid to localities for the maintenance and repair of roads and bridges.

Deanna Nelson and her siblings own Karen’s Produce & Ice Cream on Route 5S in Tribes Hill, the property along the Schoharie Creek underneath the new Thruway bridge. At the time of the flood, another farmstand stood on the land called Dufel’s Scho-Mo, Nelson said.

Then Deanna Terleckey, a ninth grader at Fonda-Fultonville High School living on her family farm near Scotch Bush in the town of Florida, she remembers being on spring break at the time of the bridge collapse and school staying closed for a total of three weeks because of the rerouting of traffic in the area.

Similarly to Smith, Nelson said the events were tragic but just didn’t feel real at the time, especially as a teenager still unable to drive.

Richard Emery was obviously in a much different place as a first responder but also by the end of the first night as a member of the diving team as it recovered the body of the first victim. The water receded very quickly and, while standing on the Fort Hunter side of the creek looking west, a white Cadillac was spotted along the west bank. After making their way through knee deep mud along the Schoharie Flats, Emery said, they found the man sitting in the car.

Emery was involved in the recovery of the next two victims the next morning. They were found just south of the Mohawk where the Schoharie dumps into the river – near the old aqueduct. From there, the state police took over the recovery as it focused around the bridge – run by the state. He credited all involved for the painstaking hours, days and months they spent finding those lost, particularly amidst the metal, concrete, twisted steel, rebar, and the rest that went into the creek.

But, first and foremost, he keeps those most deeply impacted by April 5, 1987 in mind and encourages others to do the same.

“The victims always need to be remembered and their families,” he said. “And I know there’s families of the victims who still live in the area. So it’s always important to be mindful of what they go through, and what they think when the anniversaries come up. It’s just another day for them to think back and think about their loved ones that they’ve lost. So that’s always important.”

XXX

FOR PULL OUT?

LIST OF THE DECEASED

Mary Louise Peck, 47, Northumberland

Kristen Jean Peck, 22, Northumberland

Robert G. Hoffman, 46, Troy

Edward W. Myers, 50, Albany

Donald F. Hughes 59, Defreestville

Douglas L. Shive, 68, Manchester, N.H.

Evangelina Shive, Manchester, N.H.

Jackson Dalton, 65, Canada

Roland Charbonneau, 61, Canada

John D. Ninhama, 39, Wisconsin

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie

One Comment

It’s interesting that there’s no mention here of a couple controversies that arose around this disaster. There is of course the failure to properly build and inspect the footings, then there’s the issues with farmer Walt Dufel as the state took over his land, a good chunk of his livelihood, for construction of detours, and then allegedly not properly compensating him, and then there’s the issue with the Blenheim Dam upstream which actually controls the creek as a result of controlling the level of the reservoir.
Not passing judgement on any of these (and oddly, it’s hard to find anything about them on the internet), just saying they were prominent parts of the whole saga.

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