It's Been 50 years since the Silver Bridge Started Shaking and Crumbling....

Updated 48 weeks ago Special to HuntingtonNews.Net
It's Been 50 years since the Silver Bridge Started Shaking and Crumbling....

by Randy Yohe

Young bride Jackie Ward had a new green dress to surprise her husband for his company Christmas party that chilly December night. But Earl Ward never saw that pretty green dress.

The budding photographer normally worked in his company’s commercial film department. Every once in a while, however, Ward was called upon to help with news. Just after 5PM on December 15th, WSAZ News Director Boz Johnson requested that Earl head to where Point Pleasant and Gallipolis join across the waters. The young man and his film camera needed to quickly travel to where a bulletin alert proclaimed that the Silver Bridge, at rush hour, crowded with cars, had collapsed into the Ohio River.

50 years later, the West Virginia Broadcasting Hall of famer remembers that long dark night and the stark light of the next day - like it was yesterday.

It's Been 50 years since the Silver Bridge Started Shaking and Crumbling....

Ward and WSAZ evening news anchor/reporter Jim Mitchell went up the Ohio Side from Huntington to the disaster scene. Setting up his film camera on a tripod, the steady photog said at first it was hard to see anything.

“You could make out a lot of cars in the water, and as more and more first responders arrived, their lights illuminated a major, major disaster.” Ward remembered. Ward kept rolling off reels of film, images that were shuttled back to the WSAZ Newsroom. Mitchell left as well to anchor the 11 O’clock News, leaving the young pro at the scene. Ward rolled as as family members, friends, people from surrounding communities, people in shock and anguish converged on the mass of mangled metal and watery wreckage.

“It was chaos and turmoil, many cries in the night,” Ward recalled. “I had to be a professional, and do my job the best I could with so many emotions swelling up inside me, emotions that hit me hard days later, and for many days after that.” Earl stayed on the scene until well after midnight, and was back the next morning.

It's Been 50 years since the Silver Bridge Started Shaking and Crumbling....

That next morning, Ward got in a small Piper Cub plane that took off from Huntington to get aerial footage of the disaster scene. “That pilot was excellent,” Ward said, “Remember I had an old Bell and Howell hand cranking film camera, and everything needed to be steady to get it all shot right.” Ward says they took three passes over the bridge, and in the light of day, he could see the totality of the destruction.

“Everything was down, the concrete from both the (1460 foot) bridge ends was down in the water, and in the middle, there was nothing.” Ward said, adding, “The recovery effort was massive and still going on in the water and on the shore, and went on for at least another week.” Holding as steady as he could, high above the tragic scene, Ward rolled off a few rolls of the standard black and white film. On the last pass, he shot a 100-foot roll of something new, his own color film.

Never touching the ground, the plane, pilot, photog and film headed for the NBC affiliate in Pittsburgh, then was scheduled to go on to NBC News Headquarters in New York City.

“There was no internet sending back then, you had to ship film from one place to another,” Ward said. But News Director Boz Johnson told Earl New York was out. Ward was ordered to let the Pittsburgh station ship some of the footage to New York, and he and his film needed to quickly get back to Huntington where a half hour special was being prepared on the Silver Bridge Disaster.

Earl Ward eventually moved into the news department full time. Then 24, now 74 and retired after 42 years in Television, WSAZ’s longtime Chief Photographer opines that the similarities and differences between covering major, life taking disasters then and now comes down to immediacy. “The news outlets cover the basic story pretty much the same, but now, it’s live, it’s streamed, it’s analyzed, it’s so much faster.”

And Earl doesn’t remember if he ever saw Jackie’s new green Christmas Party dress. He was just glad to see Jackie.

  WV Archives video footage of the collapse from You Tube.

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