One year after I-40 Bridge collapse, many gather to remember

Monday, May 26th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WEBBERS FALLS, Okla. (AP) _ Years investigating traffic accidents with the Oklahoma Highway patrol taught Lt. Brandon Kopepasah to pay close attention to skid marks.

But when he came upon the scene at the Interstate 40 bridge collapse, the skid marks were all that was left of the vehicles that plunged into the Arkansas River like a broken string of pearls.

``It was kind of an eerie feeling to see skid marks going to the edge of nothing,'' said Kopepasah, who has nearly two decades' experience with the OHP. ``You know that the vehicles went down from looking at those.''

Ten cars, trucks, tractor-trailers, a motor home and a horse trailer plunged into the Arkansas River after support piers for the bridge were hit by barges being pushed by a towboat. Fourteen people died in the collapse.

Victims of the bridge collapse were honored Monday with a memorial service recognizing the one-year anniversary of the collapse.

A memorial sculpture for the victims was expected to be unveiled at a riverside park.

It depicts a young girl with arms outstretched to cradle a dove atop a jutting structure made of broken steel beams from the I-40 bridge.

Designer Shahla Rahimi-Reynolds has said the sculpture, titled ``Going Home,'' symbolizes all the victims leaving this earth toward heaven.

Much of the memorial surrounding the bronze sculpture is black granite from the African country of Zimbabwe. There are two monoliths nearly six feet high in front, the words ``Going Home'' are positioned on the left side and the right side is topped by ``In Loving Memory Of ...''

A 14-sided oval featuring the names of every victim sits below.

The splash of cars and trucks dropping one by one into the muddy flow haunts Norman Barton Jr., who came to the river to fish for bass and ended up fishing for men. He helped save one, but 14 other people died.

``For a long time,'' Barton said, ``I'd hold my breath going over the bridge.''

He still doesn't cross on the rebuilt interstate without first looking for an approaching barge.

A federal investigation into the collapse remains unfinished.

Towboat pilot William Joe Dedmon said he blacked out before hitting the bridge, something his lawyers and a prominent cardiologist attribute to a heart condition. Investigators also noted that Dedmon slept less than 10 hours in the two days before the accident.

Survivors and victims' family members recently settled a lawsuit with the tugboat's owner, Mississippi-based Magnolia Marine Transport Co.