The Memorial honoring the victims of the I-40 Bridge diaster is 14 feet tall and constructed of wreckage from the accident and topped by the bronze sculpture of a young girl reaching upwards and releasing a dove. The sculpture represents Shea Nicole Johnson, Age 3, of Lavaca, Ark, the youngest victim of the tragedy. Shahla Rahimi-Reynolds was chosen by a Webber’s Falls committee to design the memorial. The oval base consists of 14 granite plaques, each bearing the name of one of the victims. The pedestal holds a 4 x 8 foot re-creation of the bridge and uses metal girders from the original bridge. On May 26th, 2003, one year after the tragedy, the Memorial in Webbers Falls’ Historic City Park was dedicated by then Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry.
Five years later: former Webbers Falls mayor recounts I-40 bridge collapse
This article by Monica Keen, Staff Writer, first appeared on Wednesday, May 23, 2007 and is used with permission from Sequoyah County Times.
May 26, 2002, was a typical Sunday for Jewell Horne of Webbers Falls, who was getting dressed for church that morning.
Horne recalls hearing something that morning, which she describes as a “bump.” From her Webbers Falls home, the sound was not loud, she said.
“I didn’t pay attention to it,” Horne said.
But Horne soon discovered that the bump she heard was actually the collapse of the far western span of the Interstate 40 bridge over the Arkansas River near Webbers Falls after a barge crashed into the bridge supports.
The barge was being pushed up the Arkansas River by a towboat, piloted by Capt. William Joe Dedmon. Dedmon, then 62, had collapsed unconscious in the wheelhouse before his boat sent the barge crashing into the bridge.
Unknowing drivers could not see that the bridge had collapsed, and they continued driving across the bridge before soaring into the gap left by the missing span and into the murky waters of the Arkansas River.
The tragedy claimed the lives of 14 people, while five others survived, pulled out of the waters by bass anglers and others who were on the river that morning.
More cars did not go into the river because of the quick thinking of an angler fishing on the river below who shot a flare at an approaching truck. The flare hit the windshield of the truck, alerting the driver who stopped, blocking the lanes to the bridge and ending the carnage.
Five years later, Horne, the former longtime mayor and current Webbers Falls City Council member, can still recall with clarity first hearing about the bridge collapse.
Horne said that she learned of the collapse from a phone call, which prompted her to send a young police officer to check out the call. She explained the town was always getting calls about something happening on Interstate 40, and they usually turned out to be false.
After the officer went to view the bridge, he immediately called Horne back. Horne said she could tell by the officer’s voice that something was wrong. “I heard the panic in his voice.
“He said, ‘The cars are going off into the river. What do I do? What do I do?'”
Horne told the young officer, Luke Morris, to try to get the traffic stopped.
“He did a wonderful job. He was young…very young,” Horne recalls.
Upon first seeing the collapsed bridge for the first time, Horne was in disbelief.
“It was really hard to believe. It was like in a dream and it’s really not true,” she said. “We drive across our bridges every day. We trust them.”
The bridge collapse has made an indelible impression on Horne and the others affected.
“It was a day that probably will be in our minds forever,” Horne said. “I could just imagine the horror of those people as they went over that bridge.”
As for the families of the victims, Horne can only imagine their heartbreak. “It’s something we’ll never forget.”
Even now, as Saturday marks the five-year anniversary of the river bridge collapse, whenever Horne passes the victims’ monument that stands in the Battle of Webbers Falls Park, she still thinks about the families.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been five years,” she said.
Throughout the ordeal, the victims’ families and their suffering are what stand out most in Horne’s mind.
Horne said she also recalls the “preposterous” man, who was impersonating an Army captain and tried to take over at the scene.
“It’s amazing how things happen…the things that stay with you.”
She also remembers the cooperation among all those who were working on the bridge collapse. She said they let the U.S. Coast Guard have a part of the city hall to work in, and while space was limited, they still worked together.
“Everyone who was there had a job to do,” she said.
In the aftermath, the city hall was opened up to emergency personnel, the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, and families.
“It was sort of chaos for a while,” Horne said.
The scene was so chaotic that Horne had the calls to the police phone transferred to the city phone because the police department was overwhelmed with calls from people asking about the collapse.
She said people who had family traveling were trying to find out if their loved ones were among the victims. During that time, Horne said they logged over 800 calls.
In the first 24 hours of the bridge collapse, Horne said she had only two hours sleep because she was constantly on the phone with different people.
Not only were the phone lines busy, but traffic was at an all-time high in the usually sleepy town. As a result, residents’ lives were disrupted by the sudden influx of traffic, which Horne said hurt local businesses.
“They all made it through though,” she said. “This is a wonderful little community…very compassionate.”
A lifelong Webbers Falls resident, Horne said she believes the bridge collapse is the worst thing she can remember happening in the town.
“Fourteen people were killed…five rescued,” she said.
The victims killed are Jerry Gillion, 58, and Patricia Gillion, 57, both of Spiro; Wayne Martin, 49, and Susan Martin, 49, both of Norman; David Mueggenborg, 52, and Jean Mueggenborg, 51, both of Okarche; James Johnson, 30, Misty Johnson, 28, and Shea Johnson, 3, all of Lavaca, Ark.; Jeanine Cawley, 48, of Lebanon, Ore.; Andrew Clements, 35, of California; Margaret Green, 45, of Stockdale, Texas; Gail Shanahan, 49, of Corpus Christi, Texas; and Paul Tailele Jr., 39, of Magna, Utah.
Horne said she expects that the town will have a short program this year on Memorial Day, like they have done every year.
Since the tragedy, Horne said she has stayed in contact with some of the victims’ families and has remained very close with some of them.
“They’re wonderful people. They had a change in their life and it happened here,” Horne said. “We all had a change in our life that day.”
Many Thanks to ODOT for use of their images for this I-40 Bridge Memorial Page.