Friday, September 13, 2019

A Fateful Day on the Mianus River, Part Two

As summer draws to a close, we look back to two more interviews detailing the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge during the early morning of June 28, 1983. Earlier this summer, volunteer Joseph Campbell delved into two representative interviews from first-hand witnesses of events following the bridge collapse that fateful morning.  

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

In this entry, Mr. Campbell reports on two additional interviews from the Oral History Project book. The first is an interview with Mary Oldham, resident of a home near the bridge who stayed close to the disaster all night. The other is with Craig Baggott, a reporter at the time for the Hartford Courant who investigated the bridge inspection system then in place.
Recent photo of the Mianus Bridge
Leslie Yager, Greenwich Free Press
June 28, 1983 was a normal day for Mary Oldham. She woke up, went to work, she and her husband came home and made dinner, relaxed and went to bed. She, like all her neighbors, were awakened after midnight to the sounds of the Mianus Bridge collapsing.  

Mary and other residents had grown used to the bridge and its various sounds. Typical groans and creaks were ignored, but when she and her neighbors heard odd noises, they would call the transportation department and let them know about the stranges sounds emanating from the structure. Prior to the collapse, there were odd noises, and there were phone calls. What was different, though, this time no one got back to them before the bridge fell.  

The sound of the collapsing bridge woke Mary and her husband, but initially they thought it was just very loud thunder. When Mary went to the window, she realized immediately that the bridge was gone. She could not see much of the damage, but that would soon change as darkness bcame morning light. Eventually the rescue teams showed up, the press not far behind.

This was in a time without cell phones or internet. Many of the reporters were camped out in front of her house, and Mary allowed them to use her phone to call in their stories. She remembered, like most, the helicopters and the fire engines and rescue crews and then eventually the repair crews. It would be a long time before life would return to normal for Mary and her neighbors. 

While Mary was watching the collapse from her front yard, Craig Baggott was working for the Hartford Courant the night of the collapse. He remembers the night, not because he was on the scene but because the reports began coming in when he was working. Baggott explains in his interview how he did not report directly on the collapse itself. Rather, working on the projects desk at the Courant, he and others began looking into what led to the disaster.  

Baggott and the team at the Courant began poring over inspection reports of the bridge, and they made several discoveries. One revelation was that the bridge had not been inspected according to standards. After reviewing many reports, it became clear that inspecting a bridge like the Mianus involved a very hands-on process, physically looking at the bridge up close. It turned out that this was rarely done. Instead, the bridge had been inspected with men on the ground with binoculars. Worse, inspection reports had been falsified.  

Subsequent state reports revealed that many of Connecticut’s bridges were also in a state of disrepair. In the wake of the Mianus Bridge collapse, Connecticut eventually began funding inspections and repairs to the bridges to keep this tragedy from happening again, at least for a few years.  

Unfortunately, from a report in Greenwich Time several years ago, to name one such source, we learn that the state still grapples with faulty infrastructure, noting: “The poor condition of the state’s roads and bridges continues to be an issue. A national report earlier this year found that nearly four-fifths of major, locally and state-maintained roads are in poor or mediocre condition and eight percent of bridges are structurally deficient.”

The tragedy that unfolded in Greenwich in 1983 should have sent an urgent message, and yet it appears that message has gone largely unheeded. Will it take another tragedy to alert yet another generation?

[The Mianus River Bridge Collapse: June 28, 1983, An Oral History is available through the Greenwich Library, its branches, and the Perrot Memorial Library. Interview #2418, Mary Oldham, Greenwich resident, and #2471, Craig Baggott, a reporter for the Hartford Courant who investigated the bridge inspection system, can be found in the reference section of the first floor of the library.]