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Bridge Collapse voted top AP story of 2002

The deadly collapse of a bridge on Interstate 40 near Webbers Falls was voted by AP member editors as the top Oklahoma story of 2002.

Fourteen people died in the May 26 accident when their vehicles plunged into the murky waters of the Arkansas River. The bridge collapsed after it was hit by a towboat. The story garnered national headlines for days with the rescue and recovery of the injured and dead, speculation as to the health of the towboat captain and the discovery that an impostor posed as
a military official during rescue operations.

This was one of five stories receiving first-place votes. The election of former state Sen. Brad Henry as governor was selected as the No. 2 story, followed by the state budget shortfall, problems with school funding and an ice storm that did major damage in northern Oklahoma.

Ten vehicles were pulled from the Arkansas River after the Webbers Falls accident. Capt. Joe Dedmon, who was piloting the towboat, which was
pushing two barges, said he blacked out just before the boat rammed a bridge support, causing a 500-foot section of roadway to fall into the river. He also told National Transportation Safety Board investigators he had slept fewer than 10 hours in two days previous to the accident, but said he was not tired.

Two hours after the bridge collapsed, William Clark arrived in Webbers Falls and told Mayor Jewell Horne that he was in charge. He even gave media interviews dressed in camouflage fatigues and wearing a green beret. Instead of being a member of the Special Forces as he claimed, he had served jail time for stealing. Relatives and investigators said Clark, 36, had a history of assuming false identities to gain free meals, free rooms or
merchandise. He was ultimately jailed on federal charges of impersonating an officer.

The bridge was rebuilt in two months at a cost of $13 million. Brad Henry's victory in the governor's race came as a surprise to many political pundits.

He finished second to Vince Orza in the Democratic primary, but won his party's nomination in a runoff, and then defeated Republican favorite Steve Largent in the fall general election.

The No. 3 story was state budget shortfall, which resulted in decreased services and the need for a special session, where Rainy Day funds were allocated to avoid furloughing prison guards. A report from the Office of State Finance showed sales taxes and income taxes started dipping even before the state Legislature adjourned in May.

The budget shortfall went hand-in-hand with the No. 4 story, the financial problems facing Oklahoma public schools. As the state had less money to distribute to school districts, school boards across the state faced decisions such as reducing transportation costs, relying on volunteers to substitute teach, increasing student-teacher ratios and cutting administrative costs.

By the end of the year, school districts had avoided laying off teachers, but concerns were raised that this might ultimately be necessary.The No. 5 story was the ice storm that crippled much of north-central Oklahoma in late January.

The ice storm left 255,000 people without power and caused nearly $150 million in damage to public and private homes and businesses. After 40 days, the last customer's electricity was restored, but cleanup of downed trees and power poles continued for months.

Voted No. 6 was the continuing saga of the drive to outlaw cockfighting. After extensive campaign on both sides, voters approved the referendum outlawing cockfighting. But cockfighting proponents were not ready for the decision to be made at the ballot box and have continued the fight in the courts by going county-by-county seeking an injunction to the new law.

Gov. Frank Keating saw his dream of a capitol dome come true in 2002. It was voted the No. 7 story of the year. On Nov. 16 performances by country music star Vince Gill, an Oklahoma native, American Indian dancers in traditional dress and a 20-minute fireworks display capped off the 18-month, $21-million privately funded dome building project.

The No. 8 story of the year was the election. Nine state questions, including two dealing with cockfighting, a three-way governor's race between Democrat Brad Henry, Republican Steve Largent and independent Gary Richardson along with a bevy of state office races resulted in a turnout of more than half of the state's 2 million registered voters.

No. 9 was Oklahoma basketball. The men's and women's teams reached the Final Four. For the men it was their first trip since 1988 and it was the first ever for the women.

Rounding out the top 10 was the fall of Williams Communication Group Inc.
The Tulsa-based company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but was able to rebound almost six months later with less debt, new management and a new name, WilTel Communications Group Inc.

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