Deadly Cherokee County Crash: Officials Push For Sooner Start Date On Bridge Replacement
TAHLEQUAH, Oklahoma - Students and faculty at Northeastern State University are mourning a terrible loss after five students were killed in a crash this weekend on Welling Bridge near Tahlequah.
The bridge is at the bottom of a very windy road and is considered "functionally obsolete" by the state. Now, county officials are working to see what they can do to speed up the process of replacing it.
“I wasn’t with these kids; I don’t know what happened,” said Cherokee County Undersheriff Jason Chennault. “From what my deputies tell me, they believe they were just unfamiliar with the road.”
Welling Road is a narrow county road with a lot of curves that can be difficult to navigate for those who are unfamiliar with it.
“The speeds are posted on the road for a reason; don’t drive any faster than you have to,” said Chennault.
Chennault says the road can be dangerous because of the 90-degree curves heading onto the bridge. There have been accidents in the area in the past but nothing of this magnitude.
“I’ve been here for 19 years and I can’t think of anything that’s happened with this many victims,” said Chennault.
“There was one accident here about a year and a half ago,” Cherokee County Commissioner Clif Hall recalled. “A high schooler went off here into the water and he got to walk away. Unfortunately, these kids didn’t”
County officials have been working on a plan to replace Welling Bridge for the past several years after the state considered it “functionally obsolete” because of the width of the bridge.
“It works and it carries traffic loads and everything, it’s just the entry and the exit are hard 90s and if you don’t know the road then that’s probably what got these kids,” said Hall.
Commissioner Hall says they are planning a completely new bridge north of the current bridge. This will eliminate the sharp turns to get onto the bridge and hopefully improve safety on the road.
They are currently set to start construction on the bridge in the fall of next year, but this accident has prompted them to take a second look at the start date.
“The unfortunate death of these teenagers, it gets everyone thinking,” said Hall. “So, we’re going to do all we can to fast track it and see if we can move it up.”