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Boat Captain's Wife: Emotional Wounds Yet To Heal

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TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ Some days, when the heartache comes, Joe Dedmon asks God why he's still alive. It's been five years since 14 people died after the barges being pushed by his towboat crashed into the Interstate-40 bridge near Webbers Falls, causing a 500-foot span to collapse into the muddy Arkansas River. Yet each anniversary has been a little more difficult for Dedmon, a man who grew up on the river, only to watch it turn against him in the cruelest way possible.

The details of May 26, 2002 are still too painful for him to talk about publicly, says his wife, Betty, from the couple's home in Mississippi.

Joe Dedmon would later tell investigators he blacked out before the barges hit the bridge, sending cars and trucks splashing, one by one, into the river, their victims trapped inside. A nearby fisherman fired a warning flare to alert motorists a part of the bridge was out, but the damage was done.

``It's getting closer to that day, and he kind of gets down and out,'' Betty Dedmon says of the approaching Memorial Day weekend. ``The days are very hard for him.''

Most painful for Joe, she says, is knowing there are people who still believe her husband, who has an abnormal heart rhythm, didn't black out at the wheel moments before the accident.

She's saved newspaper clippings from the days and weeks following the accident, offering up all the theories of what could have happened in that wheelhouse. That's why Joe hasn't been able to bring himself to read any of them, she says.

``I do want people to know it has broken him really bad and it's something he'll never get over,'' Betty says. ``It will always be with him.''

Even though the National Transportation Safety Board's 92-page final report said Dedmon's heart condition most likely caused him to lose consciousness moments before the accident, that's no consolation for him, she says.

Dedmon cannot make a living. He surrendered his pilot's license after the crash and spends most of his days with his grandchildren.

``God saw fit to leave him here for a reason,'' Betty says.

Also spared that day were Broken Arrow evangelists Max and Goldie Alley, who came within 8 feet of a watery grave. They sometimes ask the Lord why they lived and so many others perished, but to them, it's a matter of faith.

Five years ago, their pickup drove off the collapsed bridge, landing on a section that had not fallen into the river. Max broke his back in two places; Goldie had cracked ribs. But they were alive.

So this weekend, as they have for the past four years, they will cross that rebuilt bridge to preach at a tiny church near the Arkansas border. This year's sermon will be about the tricks of the Devil.

``When God spared my life five years ago, I know he wasn't finished with us,'' said Goldie Alley, who has traveled with her husband to nearly 200 churches across the country since the accident to share their testimony.

There are days she gets the survivor's guilt, the ``why me, Lord?'' moments, but she says they quickly pass.

``We'll never forget that, it makes you thankful each and every morning you get out of bed,'' she says.

The tragedy also took years off the life of Gary Ridley, the state's transportation director, whose job it was to oversee the rebuilding of the I-40 bridge and make certain a disaster like Webbers Falls never happened again in Oklahoma.

There is still work to do: Oklahoma has more than 1,000 state-maintained deficient or obsolete bridges over water, out of 6,700 total.

Ridley, who joined the department in 1965, cites progress since 2002. Legislation passed last year will allow the transportation department to pour more resources into fixing and replacing bridges, as well as other roadwork.

Before the bill was passed, the agency only had the means to replace 145 bridges during the next eight years. Now, the number is up to 480.

As for the four major bridges in the McClellan-Kerr navigational channel, the department has or will install 50 protective concrete piers in front of the structures to protect them from runaway barges. The concrete piers are already in place at the I-40 bridge.

``We wanted to ensure ourselves they were adequately protected from someone else making the same mistake,'' Ridley said in a recent interview. ``Buy us some peace of mind.''

More changes could be coming, too. The U.S. Coast Guard is still reviewing recommendations set forth in the NTSB report about evaluating the utility and effectiveness of wheelhouse alerter systems on towing vessels to prevent further accidents, a spokesman said.

For Joe Dedmon, there could come a day when he is ready to talk about what he's been through, his wife says.

Just not this year.

``We just really want the people there to know we still pray for them and ask for their forgiveness.

``God's the only one that can heal this for all of us,'' she says.
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