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1968 Hemlock bridge collapse a reminder of community courage

1968 Hemlock bridge collapse a reminder of community courage

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When 15-year-old Terry Pierce left Longview’s 4th of July celebration at Lake Sacajawea in 1968, he took the Hemlock Street footbridge. The old wooden structure creaked under the mass of people attempting to cross in both directions. In a recent interview, Pierce said he remembered it feeling like crossing a swaying rope bridge.

“I wondered if this thing was going to give way,” Pierce said.

At around 10:30 p.m., he heard a loud sound, like a cracking bang. It wasn’t exactly like fireworks, but it sounded similar enough for him to look out along the horizon to see if the show had an encore. Not seeing anything, he went home and went to bed.

The next thing he remembered was the voice of his father Fred Pierce waking him up as his door opened. He was soaking wet, and the look in his eyes frightened Pierce with its intensity. Pierce worried he was in trouble.

“We’ve been searching for you,” his father told him. “Nobody knew where you were.”

That was when he learned that the noise he’d heard was the old footbridge collapsing into Lake Sacajawea. More than 100 people had fallen into the dark waters below, and his father was one of the dozens of bystanders who had jumped in to save them.

After the bridge’s collapse, many were quick to point out the bravery of people who dove into the water without hesitation to save people in trouble, whether they did so in public meetings or letters to TDN.

Terry Pierce said he would always be touched by the courage of people like his dad. Knowing his father was “never the best swimmer,” but jumped in to find his son without hesitation was something that inspired him in his 28 years as a Navy officer, where he would reach the rank of captain and command the USS Whidbey Island and the USS Okinawa, as well as write a novel about the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg.

“That was a ‘without warning’ moment,” he said, “Big or small, these chilling moments all have something in common. They hit without warning, and how we respond, either as a nation or as a person, depends on character.”

Searching for survivors

The search that night continued until around 4 a.m., with floodlights scanning the water as first responders and event attendees alike jumped into the water to pull victims out. According to the July 5 edition of The Daily News, more than 80 people were injured, though most not seriously. Those who were hurt were spirited off to hospitals in emergency vehicles, and when those weren’t enough, bystanders drove the injured in their personal cars. Ultimately, only seven people were admitted to a hospital, with three discharged the next day and the other four shortly after.

Many at the scene, like Pierce’s father, feared people might be trapped underneath the bridge debris, but fortunately, there were no deaths resulting from the collapse. The debris was cleared from the water by the next day, with no bodies found.

One reason for the collapse being limited mostly to minor injuries was that it collapsed on one side first, sliding all the pedestrians off to the side rather than dropping them straight down, city officials explained. Had both support struts given way at the same time, the outcome likely would have been far more dire.

A new bridge

The next question on the public’s mind was what to do with the span. The 103-foot wooden bridge, built in October 1940, was now just a pile of scrap wood on both sides of the lake. Public opinion favored replacing the structure, but financing it would prove more difficult.

The Reynolds Metals Co. — which ran an aluminum plant in Longview — was quick to make an offer to replace the structure. TDN’s Aug. 23, 1968 issue reported that the company had approached city officials about the job.

But after city officials rejected Reynolds’ first plan for being too expensive, the company presented a second plan to design and build a new span for $30,000 (roughly $221,000 in 2020 dollars) on Sept. 12, 1968. The city’s objections were the same this time, though: It was still too expensive. This would delay the installation of a new bridge for months.

The project would stall until November, when Reynolds offered the city a $10,000 contribution to the project in exchange for having the city assemble the bridge once Reynolds had fabricated all parts.

On May 22, 1969, the city completed its bidding process for the construction of a new span, and construction finally began, with the foundations for the new structure being put in place over the summer. The new bridge would be finished on Nov. 12, 1969, and it stands to this day.

The next time you’re crossing the Hemlock footbridge, take a moment to appreciate how, 52 years ago, people dove into the waters of Lake Sacajawea to rescue their family, friends and neighbors.

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