Rescue crews battling helplessness and fatigue return to river to recover bodies in Oklahoma

By Jennifer L. Brown Associated Press Writer
Thursday May 30, 2002

By Jennifer L. Brown 

Associated Press Writer 


WEBBERS FALLS, Okla. – Divers who have battled thunderstorms and fatigue returned to the murky Arkansas River on Wednesday to resume the painstaking recovery of bodies from a deadly bridge collapse. 

Crews using sonar and a large crane have recovered the bodies of 13 people and pulled 10 vehicles from the water. Authorities believe more victims will be found. 

Oklahoma Army National Guard troops planned to sweep the river’s shoreline as far as two miles downstream from the collapsed Interstate 40 bridge to look for the personal effects of the victims, said Michelann Ooten, spokeswoman for the state Department of Civil Emergency Management. 

The recovery operation has put divers and other workers under an emotional strain, Ooten said. 

“We’re having a beneficial effect, but at the same time, there’s a feeling of helplessness that we’re not doing all we can be doing, just because of the obstacles and treacherous conditions,” said Dennis Splawn, a diver with the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. 

An unknown number of people are still missing after an out-of-control barge hit the Interstate 40 bridge on Sunday and knocked out a 500-foot section of highway, sending about a dozen vehicles plunging 62 feet into the river. 

The bodies of seven women and six men have been recovered from the water, said highway patrol Lt. Chris West. As each body is removed, the recovery crews stand in somber vigil and pray. 

Among the dead were Misty Johnson, 28, and James Johnson, 30, of Lavaca, Ark., a couple said to be en route to Tulsa with their 3-year-old daughter, Shay Nicole. 

“We do believe we have very good, reliable information that the child was traveling with them,” Ooten said. 

Divers also managed to pull up the body of Andrew Clements, 35, an Army captain who was driving across the country to begin a new chapter in his life. 

Clements picked up his German shepherd in California and headed east to Alexandria, Va., where he and his wife were set to close a deal on a new two-story house. By Sunday morning, he was crossing the I-40 bridge when the barge hit. 

“What were the odds of something like that happening?” asked Ronald Clements, his father. His son left behind three children, including an 8-week-old. 

Dental records eventually confirmed Andrew Clements’ identity, but photos of the crushed car had already given it away: There was a dog cage in the back seat. 

Other victims included Gail Shanahan, 49, who was returning to Texas with another horse trainer, Maggie Green, when their truck and a trailer hauling four horses plunged off the bridge. Searchers have pulled three horses out of the river. 

Norman police Detective Wayne Martin and his wife, Susan, were two more victims. They were heading to Arkansas for a family reunion Sunday morning, but never arrived. 

“We are pretty well resolved to the facts,” said Norman police Lt. Glenn Dobry. “It’s extremely tough.” 

George Black of the National Transportation Safety Board said a barge crewman who visited with captain Joe Dedmon five to 10 minutes before the accident said everything seemed normal. It is believed that Dedmon blacked out at the helm. 

Others who were not with the captain said they heard no alarm or change in the sound of the engine that would indicate he was trying to avoid a crash, Black said. 

Authorities said it will cost about $15 million and as long as six months to repair the bridge. 

Motorists were discouraged from driving in the area, even on alternate routes, because bridges on those roads were not built to withstand the traffic that crossed the I-40 structure, authorities said. 

Transportation officials said an inspection a year ago of the 1,988-foot bridge found no difficulties. 

“This was not a bridge failure, this was a bridge knockdown,” said Bruce Taylor, chief engineer for the state transportation department. Taylor said the bridge was built in 1967 had a 75-year life expectancy.