Victims of bridge collapse remembered at prayer service

Monday, June 3rd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WEBBERS FALLS, Okla. (AP) _ Victims of a deadly bridge collapse were remembered with prayers and bouquets as state transportation workers prepared to demolish a damaged span that dangles over the Arkansas River.

Demolition of the 800-ton span of the Interstate 40 bridge was scheduled to begin Monday, said Terri Angier, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation and Development.

The span is part of a section of the bridge that collapsed May 26 after it was struck by a barge tow, killing 14 people. Part of the collapsed span is supported by the barges that struck it.

``That's the majority of our concern and activity,'' she said.

John Fuller, the Transportation Department's assistant director for the bridge operation, said the barges must be steadied completely before specialized scissors-like equipment can gradually chew up the concrete on the leaning portions of the bridge.

Engineers fear that any destabilization of the barges could put too much pressure on other piers, endangering the rest of the bridge.

``We have a plan to go about it,'' Fuller said. ``Now we're taking the safety precautions to make sure they stay in place.''

Crews plan to use explosives, a wrecking ball and other equipment to demolish the bridge span where it fell, Angier said.

She said residents may hear explosive charges during the demolition but that workers will use much smaller amounts of explosives than have been needed in other bridge demolition projects.

Fuller said removal of the leaning portion of the bridge could take about 10 days.

Meanwhile, ministers and residents gathered at a temporary memorial and prayed for the victims Sunday, one week after the bridge collapse.

``We ask that thy spirit be with the victims and their families,'' prayed Hazel Warren, wife of Sequoyah County Commissioner Lewis Warren.

``These families who have lost loved ones need you,'' said the Rev. Andy Webb of Green Valley Baptist Church.

More than 70 people held hands beneath the hot afternoon sun at a temporary chain-link fence erected in a public park within eyesight of the collapsed bridge about a mile downstream.

Mayor Jewell Horne said the memorial, festooned with bouquets and ribbons, was planned to remember the victims and help their families cope with their loss.

``I felt we needed to come together,'' Horne said. ``Those families will be in our thoughts and our prayers from now on.

``It's a time of sorrow. We deeply regret this.''

No members of victims' families attended the ceremony. Horne said she hopes some will be available for another service that is planned in about a week.

She said local officials are seeking ideas from family members for a permanent memorial to the victims that is planned at the same site.

Aaron Gage, a chaplain with Friendship Freedom Church, said many residents were deeply affected by the tragedy and felt a need to erect a memorial.

``I think it's the least thing you can do,'' Gage said.

Several residents placed flowers on the makeshift memorial. A young boy shoved the staff of an American flag through a link in the fence.

Nearby, tractor-trailers and other vehicles rumbled across the Oklahoma 64 bridge that spans the river between Webbers Falls and Gore, one of several detour routes.

O.L. Hefton, 89, watched the ceremony from a folding chair and worried about the impact detours will have on small communities that are served by two-lane roadways.

``It's unavoidable. But it is a mess,'' Hefton said. ``We don't think about it until it happens in our own backyard.''