Officials, crews mark one month since deadly bridge collapse

Wednesday, June 26th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

A month after 14 people died when a barge slammed into an Interstate 40 bridge in Oklahoma, the process of rebuilding the span is slightly ahead of schedule, the towboat involved is back in service and the boat's captain has a defibrillator in his heart.

State officials, members of the Cherokee Nation tribe and construction engineers marked the one-month anniversary of the accident on Wednesday, showing reporters the progress being made toward re-opening the bridge by a mid-August deadline.

Stan Mediate, company manager for Fort Worth, Texas-based Gilbert Central Corp., said crews are ``probably a day or two ahead'' in their efforts, but said safety standards aren't being sacrificed for speed.

``We're not taking any shortcuts,'' he said.

Mediate said the pillars of the bridge should be set between July 3 and July 9.

Meanwhile, William Joe Dedmon, captain of the towboat that was pushing the barge that hit one of the bridge piers, had a defibrillator implanted in his heart.

Dedmon has said he blacked out shortly before the accident occurred near Webbers Falls. His attorney has said an undiagnosed heart condition could have left Dedmon unconscious at the time of the bridge accident.

Joel Henderson, an attorney for towboat owner Magnolia Marine Transport Co., said Dedmon may not be able to pass U.S. Coast Guard physical requirements because of the implant.

As for the vessel Dedmon was piloting, the Robert Y. Love, went back into service last week.

Henderson said the boat returned to the waterways shortly after it was inspected. The two barges it was pushing are at a Greenville, Miss., shipyard for repairs.

The towboat is in Port Birmingham, Ala., on the Black Warrior River, said Jennifer Meador, spokeswoman for Magnolia.

Vicksburg, Miss.-based Magnolia Marine, Dedmon and barge owner Ergon Inc., of Jackson, Miss., are being sued by the relatives of a Lavaca, Ark., family killed in the May 26 accident.

Attorneys for the survivors of Jim, Misty and Shae Johnson claim the towboat lacked a device, called a dead man's switch, that could have prevented the disaster. Such a switch cuts power to a vessel if its pilot becomes incapacitated.

But Henderson said putting the switch on a towboat could be hazardous.

``I don't know of any vessel on inland waterways operating with such a device,'' he said. ``To me, the worst thing you could have happen is to cut the engines'' while the boat is in a waterway.

On Friday, the Cherokee Nation will hold a ``comfort ceremony'' and memorial service to honor those killed. The tribe owns the riverbed where the accident occurred and has granted temporary easements for construction crews.

The Cherokee National Children's Choir will sing ``Orphan Child,'' a song of mourning dating to the Trail of Tears.

The choir also performed the song at the site of the World Trade Center in New York.

``It's part of the healing process,'' Cherokee Nation Chief Chad Smith said.