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St. Albans end of bridge blown down

ST. ALBANS, W.Va. -- Hundreds of people braved a cold, damp and snowy morning Friday to watch a big chunk of the Dick Henderson Memorial Bridge get blasted into the Kanawha River.

The St. Albans end of the span, which crosses the river between Nitro and St. Albans, came down in a controlled explosion at 10 a.m.

"This is turning a page of history, folks," St. Albans Mayor Dick Callaway told the assembled crowd a few minutes before the bridge came down. The bridge, built in 1934, is being demolished and a new span will be built on the existing piers. The bridge is expected to reopen by November.

Callaway said the new bridge will be wider and safer than the old bridge, which had its weight limit reduced in recent years over concerns about its safety. Construction of the new bridge is expected to cost $23.6 million.

Contractors for Kokosing Construction Co. originally planned to cut the bridge into sections and remove it with machinery, but demolition of the central part of the bridge took much longer than they expected. They found that the bridge sections were too heavy to remove with cranes and decided to bring the remaining parts of the bridge down with explosives instead.

Demolition crews rigged the superstructure with RDX and C4 explosives to cut the main girders supporting the bridge and drop the span into the Kanawha River. Gene Thompson of Kokosing told the crowd a series of warning signals would sound as the time counted down to the blast, followed by a final countdown before the explosions were triggered.

"It will all be over in about 10 seconds," he said.

Callaway picked three local women with historical ties to the town and the bridge to pull the ceremonial switch, signaling ignition of the explosive charges. Lorraine Henderson, widow of former state Delegate Dick Henderson, after whom the bridge was named; Margaret Bassitt, sister of former St. Albans Mayor Eddie Bassitt and the author of two books on St. Albans; and Q.D. Wood, a former Rosie the Riveter who was instrumental in creating a Rosie the Riveter park in town, all put their hands on the big wooden switch and awaited their orders.

Callaway said Wood was one of the first people to cross the bridge after it was completed. "That's what she tells me, anyway," he said.

As demolition crews made final checks on the wiring to the charges and a late morning snow squall blanketed the river, Thompson finally gave the order to start the countdown. "10...9...8...7...6," the crowd chanted in unison.

"5...4...3...2...1!"

Henderson, Bassitt and Wood pulled down on the lever. There was a pause, followed by a flash on the steel girders of the span and the eruption of a huge cloud of black smoke. Then came a chest-thumping shock wave and a morning-shattering BOOM!

"It took my breath away!" one of the women remarked. A rainstorm of water kicked up by the splash of the bridge trusses into the river settled back to earth, and the span was in the water.

The whole thing will be repeated next week, on the Nitro side of the span.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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