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Thruway bridge collapse of 1987: 'It sounded like a bomb going off'

Thruway bridge collapse of 1987: 'It sounded like a bomb going off'

What happened, why it happened and what came next
Thruway bridge collapse of 1987: 'It sounded like a bomb going off'
The bridge in 1987 (top) and today.
Photographer: SID BROWN (top); PETER R. BARBER

It started with melted snow and intense April rains.

In the end, 10 people were dead in a catastrophe that seemed unimaginable -- the collapse of a state Thruway bridge over the Schoharie Creek and five vehicles falling into deep, surging water.

The accident in Fort Hunter happened 30 years ago on April 5, 1987. 

"It was a tragedy," said Willard Peck, the Northumberland town supervisor whose mother and sister died in the raging creek. Northumberland residents Mary Louise Peck, 47, and her daughter Kristen Jean Peck, 22, were in a westbound lane, traveling to a baby shower.

"The positive things that came from it were the awareness of a decaying infrastructure in bridges and roads in the U.S. and stepped-up inspections and rebuilds," Peck said. "A day doesn't go by where I don't think about it. But I'm also quite aware that turning on the news, bad things happen to people every day.

"I try to reflect on it and my family will never forget, for sure."

The other people who died that rainy Sunday morning were:

  • Robert G. Hoffman, 46, of Troy, who was driving home after participating in a bowling tournament in Syracuse, and passengers Edward W. Myers, 50, of Albany, and Donald F. Hughes, 59, of Defreestville. All three men worked together at the former Niagara Mohawk Power Corp.
  • Douglas L. Shive, 68, and his wife Evangelina, who had left their home in Manchester, N.H., and were on their way to Texas to see relatives.
  • Canadians Jackson Dalton, 65, and Roland Charbonneau, 61, who were heading back to Toronto when their car rolled over the 80-foot cliff left by the bridge's absence.
  • John D. Ninham, 39, of Wisconsin, who was driving a tractor-trailer loaded with wood pulp when the rig fell into the creek.

 

...

 

WEATHER FACTORS

The early April rains of 1987 were intense. Streams that were already high from rainfall and snow melt from the previous week rose quickly with the new amounts of water.

Streams flooded. Witnesses said the Schoharie Creek — normally just six feet deep and shallow enough to drive a farm tractor through — was more than 10 feet above flood level and about 25 feet deep.

According to a 1989 report prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey, the scientific branch of Department of the Interior, the 1987 flood along the Schoharie was the third largest since record tabulation began during the early 1900s; only the floods of October 1955 and March 1980 were bigger.

A 60-foot section of the 540-foot-long bridge fell 110 feet into the creek about 10:45 a.m.

According to a story in The New York Times, state Trooper Peter Persico had driven west over the bridge, located four miles west of Amsterdam, a few minutes before it collapsed.

Persico rushed back to the area after witnesses contacted state police and found several cars and trucks parked on the partly collapsed bridge. Drivers were out of their cars, looking over the edge at vehicles that had already fallen in.

Peck wonders how things could have been different, with just slight shifts in time.

"My mother and sister were on the bridge, along with, I believe, a tractor-trailer coming east when the bridge actually dropped," Peck said. "The timing, it's just an amazing thing from that perspective. They stopped at my grandmother's in Ballston Spa on the way and 15 seconds either way, it'd be different. Life would be very different for all of us, probably, if it had never happened."

State troopers, Thruway workers and wrecker crews converged on the bridge, but there was more drama ahead. A section of the span connected to the western shore began to shudder and groan, according to a story published in the Schenectady Gazette, and police ordered everyone on the bridge to fall back. The second section of the bridge broke off and fell into the water  about 1:15 p.m.

Search and rescue efforts were hampered by deep water and swift currents. At 5:30 p.m., rescue crews spotted the wreckage of the truck cab and one of the cars just north of the bridge, near the Auriesville Shrine in Montgomery County. High water prevented rescue personnel from reaching the vehicles.

WITNESSES

Sid Brown, who was the Gazette's chief photographer in 1987, was about a half mile away, on Route 5S, when the first section of the bridge collapsed. He said the collapsing bridge made a rumbling sound, "like rocks rolling down a hill."

Brown decided to change his position, and get closer to the bridge. He was in place when the second portion of the bridge fell during the early afternoon, and quickly snapped a series of photos that showed the structure falling into the water.

"I had purchased a new Nikon camera, just previous to the thing happening, and it was a camera that could take four or five pictures every two seconds," said Brown, 89, who retired from the newspaper in early 1992. "I've still got it here, I've got it in my cellar."

At the time, Brown said the collapse happened quickly. "It was over in less than 10 seconds," he said.

Brown said he didn't see any vehicles in the water when he shot the collapse series. William Yurkewecz, who lived on a farm near the bridge, also saw the second section fall into the creek.

"It sounded like a bomb going off," he told the Gazette. "You saw dust all coming up and everything."

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INVESTIGATIONS

The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the accident and determined the bridge fell because piers holding it up were not protected from "scour," erosion caused by the flow of water. The NTSB report added that large stones, or "riprap," which could have minimized the scouring, had not been maintained around the bridge footings.

The report also said plans for the bridge's construction were "ambiguous" and did not include enough safeguards to back up the structure's integrity in the event of parts failure.

According to the Geological Survey report, damage to the bridge was estimated at $32.5 million. The loss of passage on the major east-west highway meant there was a severe burden on other state and local roads and secondary highways and bridges that had not been designed for heavy traffic.

The tragedy also brought change.

In 1988, the state Legislature enacted the Graber Bill, which authorized the state Department of Transportation to enact regulations that brought bridge inspection protocols to a consistent level across the state. The bill also increased the qualifications for bridge inspectors and mandated detailed structural integrity evaluations and load capacity assessments.

The Department of Transportation said all publicly owned highway bridges are inspected at least once every two years. Bridges are inspected annually if they meet certain condition deficiency criteria or are posted for limited load weights.

Currently, 65 teams of state employees and consultants conduct biennial and interim inspections on about 9,500 Department of Transportation and municipal bridges.

"I think it would be fair to say that a lot of what came out of that tragedy certainly did spark a stronger bridge program, yes," said Bryan Viggiani, a public information officer for the Department of Transportation. "That's what the Graber Bill was all about."

U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, was a state assemblyman in 1987. He was on the road when the bridge collapsed.

"I was driving up from Schoharie County to Montgomery County," Tonko said in a phone interview on Tuesday. "I never will forget hearing the thunderous sound and wondered what it was."

"I had a choice to either go Fonda to the Thruway or Amsterdam to the Thruway," Tonko added. "I was coming up to go to Amsterdam on the Thruway. You think of the moment for these folks who perished, it's very stirring when you think of it because any of us, if we changed our patterns that day, could have maybe been near or in that scene."

Tonko also said the collapse can still remind people of the importance of investing in infrastructure.

"Since then we've had many floodings in the area and they've come about with peculiar storms, atypical storms that keep mounting in number, hundred-year storms that are happening every other year that defy the nomenclature" Tonko said. "There are many reasons to invest in our infrastructure and this very sad incident should continue to speak to us 30 years later. It does to me."

Willard Peck was 17, and a senior at Schuylerville Central School when he lost his mother and sister. He continued his education at Union College in Schenectady, where he played on the basketball team.

"We'd get on that bus to go play a game and I was vividly aware," he said, of the bridge.

Mary Louise Peck's lessons have remained with her son. She always wanted people to serve their communities. "That's probably why I've been a town and county supervisor for the past 14 years," Peck said.

Peck believes Kristen, who had studied animal science at both the State University of New York at Cobleskill and Cornell University and loved cattle, would have been heavily involved in the family's Welcome Stock Farm in Schuylerville.

The incident has also taught Peck to appreciate life.

"Be thankful every day," he said. "You don't know when it's your day."

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124, at wilkin@dailygazette.com or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter.

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