Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A Fateful Day on the Mianus River

On June 28, 1983, many lives were forever changed. Shortly after midnight a section of the Mianus River Bridge on Interstate 95 in Greenwich, Connecticut collapsed into the river, leaving three people dead and three more injured. The event was a tragedy for the families involved and traumatic for the Greenwich neighborhoods of Cos Cob and Riverside. Residents soon found their lives in turmoil over the scope of the event, not the least of which was massive disruption as traffic was diverted from I-95 to these neighborhoods.

In 1992 the Greenwich Oral History Project published interviews about the event. The resulting book, The Mianus River Bridge Collapse,is a compilation of twenty-two interviews. Oral History Project volunteers conducted seventeen interviews, and the National Transportation Safety Board investigators conducted the remaining five.

Recently, volunteer Joseph Campbell delved into four representative interviews. Two, from first-hand witnesses of events following the collapse that fateful morning, are presented below. The other two will be the subject of a future blog post, culminating in an in depth look at the bridge inspection system at the time.

Today, when the nation’s infrastructure is cause for serious concern, the story of the Mianus River Bridge collapse is more relevant than ever. 

Here is volunteer Joe Campbell’s report on two eyewitness interviews. The first narrator is Werner G. Albrecht, Greenwich resident at the time, who was on the river that night. He heard the collapse and saw vehicles fall into the water. The other is Thomas Brown of the Connecticut State Police, on the scene above the collapse within minutes of the event. 

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Mianus River Bridge Collapse with trailer portion of fallen truck
Greenwich Library Oral History Project
According to Werner Albrecht, the night of June 28, 1983 was “balmy” with lots of moonlight creating a bright night sky. Mr. Albrecht had been on his boat on the Cos Cob side of the Mianus River near the I-95 bridge at the marina. He had been working on his boat. Later, still on his boat and reading into the night, he realized how late is was. He reached to turn off the light when he heard what he described as a deep roar followed by a loud thump and the screeching of tires. Looking out the window, he watched as car lights began pouring off the I-95 bridge and into the Mianus River. Grabbing his flashlight, he joined others along the water’s edge to begin searching for survivors. At the scene, he couldn’t believe his eyes: “that actually a piece of the roadway was missing, had gone down. There were no lights.”

Thomas Brown, a Connecticut state trooper, was patrolling in the Stamford-Greenwich area at the same time as Werner Albrecht was watching traffic fall from I-95. Soon Brown received a call over his radio about an accident on the highway. Upon arriving at the scene, he noticed that a section of the bridge over the Mianus River had collapsed, creating a large gap where the highway had been. Leaving his vehicle, he heard the pleas for help from the river below. 

This would be the start of a very long heartbreaking next few days for many people. In their interviews Werner Albrecht and Trooper Brown tell stories of the bridge collapse from two different locations and from two different points of view. 

Mr. Albrecht focuses on the reactions of residents along the river, telling of those who previously had complained about the strange noises coming from the bridge—for as long as a month before the collapse. He also describes ordinary people who at 1:30 in the morning came out to help those who had fallen into the river when the road gave way.  

State Trooper Brown describes the accident from above, initially detailing his arrival on the scene. But then he tells of the unnamed hero from Atlanta who with his wife was on a New England vacation and returning from a Yankee’s game, crossing the bridge after midnight. He was driving behind a truck when suddenly the vehicle’s taillights disappeared directly in front him. That was the last truck to fall into the river that night. The Atlanta man managed to stop his car just in time—before he too would have plunged into the river. And then a story of heroism ensues: This unknown driver left the safety of his car after seeing what lay ahead and began to stop traffic before others would have plunged into the waters below. As a result of his actions, the fatality rate would remain at the tragic loss of three lives that night, rather than rising higher. As State Trooper Brown points out, even at that time of night there was considerable traffic on the highway.   

While Mr. Albrecht discusses the rescue and recovery as well as the cleanup that took place in the days and weeks after, primarily from the perspective of the residents, Trooper Brown stays close to the details the havoc created as traffic was diverted. He describes the long backups caused by the collapse. Fortunately, highway crews managed to empty the destroyed section of the highway. Redirecting resulting traffic, however, created it own issues, causing immense congestion through the side streets of Greenwich until the section was repaired. 

Through all the sorrow for lives lost and through all the disruption, there are also heartening stories of people pulling together that night to help those in distress. The community spirit continued in the days ahead as well. Surrounding towns mobilized immediately. Stamford sent its dive team for underwater search and investigation. Other town agencies sent officers to help with traffic control. The National Guard was on the scene with helicopters.

This was a tragedy that touched many lives, the effects continuing to this day. While the interviews were conducted throughout the 80s and into the early 90s, the events are not that far removed from the memories of those in the area who lived through it. While the subject matter is tragic, the interviews serve a purpose, to capture the voices and images of people who were there.  Their words serve as warning and as respectful remembrance of those lost on the night of June 28, 1983.  

The Mianus River Bridge Collapse: June 28, 1983, An Oral Historyis available through the Greenwich Library, its branches, and the Perrot Memorial Library. Interview #2395, Werner G. Albrecht, and #2402, Thomas Brown, Connecticut state trooper at the time of the bridge collapse, can be found in the reference section of the first floor of the library.