Town hopes reopened bridge brings life back to normal

Sunday, July 28th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WEBBERS FALLS, Okla. (AP) _ Traffic is scheduled to resume today over an interstate bridge that collapsed more than two months ago, bringing life back to normal for residents of a small town that lived through the deadly tragedy.

Fourteen people were killed on May 26 when cars and trucks plunged into the muddy Arkansas River after a towboat pushing two barges slammed into a bridge along Interstate 40, collapsing part of it.

Since then, as many as 17,000 cars and trucks have been rerouted each day through Webbers Falls and other nearby towns as construction crews worked around the clock to repair the collapsed span.

``Life changed drastically that day and it will change back a little drastically tomorrow,'' Webbers Falls Mayor Jewell Horne said. ``It's going to be three or four months before we know the effects the bridge collapse had on the town, on the businesses.''

The roadway will reopen 10 days ahead of the Aug. 8 deadline set by the project's contractor, Fort Worth, Texas-based Gilbert Central Corp. Gilbert will earn $1.5 million in bonuses for completing the project early.

The cost of the project is estimated at $30 million, twice the original estimate.

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation said the pricetag rose due to the cost of shoring up the damaged structure and maintaining detour routes. The agency said it has spent almost $10 million on repairs to alternate routes.

But the increased traffic did not mean more customers for businesses in Webbers Falls, Horne said.

She said most motorists were afraid to lose their place in line in the backed up traffic and were in a hurry to get off two-lane detour routes.

``I know for June we lost several thousand dollars and it looks like July's going to be off some,'' said Butch Cox, owner of Charlie's Fried Chicken, one of Webbers Falls' three restaurants.

The line of diverted vehicles gave Cox something he'd never had before in the town of 800 residents _ commute time from his home three miles away.

``I used to see all that traffic and wonder, 'Wouldn't it be great to have all that stop here?''' Cox said. ``Well, I found out, and I don't want to know any more.''

A park in Webbers Falls, made to commemorate a Civil War battle, now holds a memorial to the 14 victims of the bridge collapse.

``We regret the lives that were lost and the loss to the families,'' Horne said. She said the victims will be remembered when the bridge reopens.

Attorney General Drew Edmondson and families of the victims have sued the towboat's owner and pilot, Joe Dedmon, for negligence.

Investigators have said Dedmon, 61, lost consciousness as he steered the tow toward the bridge. Authorities said Dedmon suffers from a heart condition that could have caused him to black out.