Yesterday's News

Bridge buckles Tradgedy that killed three could have been worse

By FRANK BOYETT, Gleaner staff writer
Sunday, July 9, 2006

Tons of steel tumbled 80 feet into the Green River 75 years ago, killing three men and injuring a fourth.

But the collapse of the main span of the Spottsville highway bridge on July 8, 1931, could have been a lot worse, according to The Gleaner's account: "Had the accident occurred five minutes earlier in all probability about 30 or 35 men would have been plunged to their deaths or serious injuries, as all but a few had just gone onto another section of the span before the collapse."

The four victims had been "working under the structure when the collapse occurred. They were carried down into the stream with the wreckage. Several other men, estimated at between six and ten, were at work on top of the structure but all leaped to safety.

"The workmen rushed to boats and rowed to the point where the steel had fallen into the stream and rescued the four men. They were tangled in the mass of steel and wood, but the rescuers encountered but little difficulty in removing them."

The only one of the four men who survived, Vernon Hinton, 35, of Morganfield, urged the rescuers to see to the other victims when they reached him.

The three fatalities were Pat McCoun, 45, of Nashville, who left a widow and a son; J.W. Flynn, 38, of Houston; and William Meinikheim, 43, of Mt. Vernon, who left a widow and three children. McCoun and Meinikheim died on the way to the Henderson hospital, while Flynn died four hours later.

Meinikheim was foreman of the crew and brother-in-law of the project superintendent, G.V. Ghormley.

The accident was not entirely unforeseen, according to Ghormley. The steel span was being held in place with wood braces while it was under construction. Ghormley said several wood braces had been loosened earlier in the day "and it was immediately evident that a collapse was inevitable unless additional supports could be erected. Frantic efforts were being made to prevent the crash when it occurred, he told a Gleaner reporter."

Later, during a coroner's inquest, Ghormley said, "We were doing everything humanly possible to prevent the accident."

Ghormley himself narrowly escaped the collapse. "I had been out on the span but had turned and walked back to direct some work on the shore span when the crash occurred," he said.

The workers also had warnings immediately before the steel fell, The Gleaner reported. "When the steel work began buckling an advance warning of the collapse men working on other sections of the bridge screamed to those on the ill-fated section to flee. Those on top scrambled down and had just arrived at safe points when the crash occurred.

Several members of the state Highway Department Carlyle Bailey, Stanley Stagg and J.C. Stagg were in a boat at the scene, accompanied by four workmen, when the falling bridge capsized them. "They had a narrow escape from drowning when their boat was overturned when the water was churned into huge waves by the falling steel and wood."

The bridge collapse was big news, of course. The Henderson Evening Journal published a special edition, which prompted an estimated 3,000 people to visit the scene the evening of the accident.

There was some talk of indictments, but County Attorney George Clay said he had seen no evidence of criminal negligence. He noted he had attended the coroner's inquest, at which he had posed some questions.

Completion of the bridge was set back several months. District Highway Engineer J.C. Cobb said the bridge had been scheduled to open to traffic in October. The bridge didn't actually open until Dec. 18. It took about a month to clean up the damage, and to salvage most of the steel beams.

And the Spottsville bridge project took a fourth toll in human life before it was completed. An unnamed worker on top of the bridge momentarily lost his balance Oct. 16 and while saving himself dropped a block of wood he was carrying. It crushed the skull of Pearl Ligon, 34, of Beals.

He was rushed to the hospital by Hinton the injured survivor from the July 8 collapse but died 80 minutes after the accident.

100 years ago

Local doctors were amazed when they did an autopsy on Nathaniel Jackson and learned that he had lived nearly eight weeks after a bullet had plowed diagonally through his heart, The Gleaner reported in 1906.

Jackson, 23, had been shot by Jesse Sutton during a barn dance on May 18. The .38 caliber bullet was lodged just under the exterior wall opposite of where it had entered, but an infection is what killed him.

50 years ago

A week-long gas war in Evansville cut sharply into Henderson business, prompting about 35 local gasoline dealers to shut down in protest, The Gleaner reported in 1956.

The Kentucky gas tax at that time put local dealers at a disadvantage; they asked wholesalers to give them a discount to level the playing field. Regular gas was selling for 22.9 cents per gallon in Evansville, while in Henderson it was 31.9 cents. The Henderson price dropped to 25.9 cents after wholesalers granted the discount.

25 years ago

City Manager Dick Brown submitted his resignation on this date in 1981, ending six years of managing city government, The Gleaner reported.

As of that point, Brown was Henderson's longest-tenured city manager. In March of 1982 he was replaced by Russell Sights, who currently holds that record at nearly 12 years.


Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2006 HCH&GS