Tragedy on I-40

When the Interstate highway bridge collapsed, sending traffic plunging into the Arkansas River far below, these bass fishermen helped keep the dangerous situation from becoming far worse.

by Mike Lambeth

In the stillness of early morning, several bass boats idled near the Webbers Falls city boat ramp. Kirk Washburn and Alton Wilhoit had high hopes as they waited their turn to blast off. The two fishermen from Harrah, OK - normally fellow competitors - were partnered in the Jimmy Houston Outdoors Team Tournament held May 26, 2002.

The previous day Washburn and Wilhoit pre-fished the Arkansas River, part of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigational System, a waterway used for recreation, water supply, fish and wildlife conservation, hydropower and as the navigational means of moving barges from Oklahoma to New Orleans. They caught several fish, and gained knowledge that, they hoped, would land them a full livewell and a nice check.

"Alton and I had a good feeling that day," Washburn recalled. "We felt like we were going to catch some good fish. The water level was up and we found some productive weedbeds that held good numbers of fish."

Wilhoit shared his partner's enthusiasm. "It was a great morning for fishing and we were ready."

The pair drew an early starting time, leaving around 6:15 a.m. to fish their first spot - three miles south of the launch area. Crossing under the Interstate 40 Bridge, both fishermen noticed the ideal weather for fishing - air temperature was nearly 70 degrees with no wind.

Upon arriving at their first spot, the pair caught a 2 1/2-pound bass. Their plan was to fish a half-hour, then head 25 miles downriver to Sallisaw Creek, where they would spend the better part of the day.

Satisfied that they had caught all they could, Washburn suggested they change plans and go back to the bridge to try the nearby weedbeds. With life jackets on and rods stowed, the pair motored to the overpass.

The bass tournament that Kirk Wasburn (l.) and Alton Wilhoit were fishing on the day the I-40 bridge fell was rescheduled for six weeks later, which was when trucker Rodney Tidwell was reunited with the heroes who'd pulled him from the river. Photo courtesy of Alton Wilhoit

As their boat planed out at 70 mph, Washburn remembers looking back and seeing, 200 to 300 yards behind them, a barge heading north in their wake. The barge appeared to be in the very center of the channel and headed toward the generous clearance where barges cross under the bridge daily.

Washburn and Wilhoit fished a weedbed on the south edge of the bridge without success, and then slowly idled across to a wing dam just under the north side of I-40. The pair alternated throwing jigs, spinners and tube baits to entice a strike.

Suddenly - there was a roar!

The morning's tranquility was shattered with a sound Washburn compared to a sonic boom. The deafening roar reverberated throughout the entire span of the bridge. Wilhoit assumed there had been an automobile accident overhead. Nearly 150 yards away on the western end of the bridge the unthinkable had occurred - a tugboat pushing twin barges had veered off course and struck a piling with incredible force.

Witnesses recall hearing the thunderous sound miles away. When the boom silenced, the catastrophe unfolded. The impact of the 400- to 500-ton barges instantly collapsed the west end of the bridge. A chunk of the interstate between 500 and 600 feet long fell into the river. Now part of I-40, the most traveled highway between the East and West Coasts, crumbled as if moved by an earthquake. The void created a deadly trap for unsuspecting motorists.

Washburn and Wilhoit had been listening to the clopping noise made by tires running across the jointed sections of the bridge overhead. The pair was suddenly jolted into reality.

In an instant, rods were stored and life jackets put on. Wilhoit fired up the motor and jetted to the accident site. "The trip took no more than 15 to 20 seconds," said Washburn.

While en route, the pair watched in horror as a truck heading west flew off the bridge. It was then that they realized approaching traffic had no warning of the calamity ahead. Their boat idled 20 to 30 yards away from the collapsed span when another semi with a double tandem trailer sailed into the murky water and vanished.

Washburn dialed 911 on his cell phone and alerted an "unbelieving" sheriff to what had happened. "The sheriff didn't believe the bridge had actually collapsed. I had to assure him that I wasn't joking; this was a very serious matter. I told him to send emergency help at once."

In a matter of seconds, 10 vehicles eerily plunged into the murky water nearly 70 feet below the bridge. There were trucks with horse trailers, semis, and cars all unable to stop, plummeting into the turbid river. Wreckage debris littered the water's surface.

Washburn and Wilhoit stood waving their arms in an effort to ward off more tragedy. "We felt helpless; it seemed there was nothing we could do to stop the traffic," Washburn recalled.

"At one point our boat drifted directly under the bridge, pulled by the strong current," said Wilhoit. "We looked up to see a truck plunge directly overhead, narrowly missing our boat."

In desperation, Washburn told Wilhoit, "We have to back up farther from the bridge so people can see us." It was then that Wilhoit remembered having a flare gun on board - required safety equipment from a tournament they'd fished years earlier.

Wilhoit placed the boat in reverse and motored north in the current while at the same time aiming the flare gun at an approaching semi. Miraculously, the gun fired and the flare actually struck the truck's windshield. The trucker slammed on his brakes, stopping literally at the edge of the damaged bridge.

With traffic finally stopped, the anglers idled toward the barge, looking for survivors in the water. The current was strong and the men struggled to keep their boat away from the mangled wreckage. It was then they heard a resounding, "Hey," from near the barge. Mississippi truck driver Rodney Tidwell had miraculously surfaced and, though badly injured, beckoned for help.

Washburn and Wilhoit quickly tied a flotation cushion to a rope and tossed it out as the injured trucker struggled to remain afloat. Tidwell was pulled to safety by his two "heroes" and later admitted he couldn't have tread water much longer.

Thirty feet away, the bleeding and badly injured body of Arkansas truck driver James Bilyeau surfaced. His desperate pleas for help weakened as the current pulled him under the front of the barge. Washburn and Wilhoit saw Bilyeau, but were penned by the strong current to the mangled pylon and protruding rebar.

The Harrah fishermen encouraged the trucker to hang on to some floating boxes nearby. It was then that Norman Barton Jr. of Sallisaw and Randy Graham of Wagoner arrived. The anglers had been some 700 yards away when the collision occurred.

The badly injured Bilyeau was nowhere in sight. Graham maneuvered their boat under the front of the barge, and noticed a strange object. The object turned out to be the blood-covered head of Bilyeau. Norman and Randy tossed the victim a cushion on a rope and pulled him to safety.

A short distance away, John Swain and his son Gabe pulled a third victim into their boat. With injured survivors onboard, the boats headed to the ramp a little over two miles away. They cared for the victims the best they could. Emergency help was on the scene when they arrived.

The tranquil morning had turned deadly, and now ominous black clouds halted rescue efforts until the storm passed. The aftermath left 10 vehicles in a watery grave, and claimed 14 lives. The victims were: Andrew Clements, 35, of California; Jeanine Cawley, 48, of Lebanon, Ore.; Margaret Green, 45, of Stockdale, Texas; Gail Shanahan, 49, of Corpus Christi, Texas; James Johnson, 30, of Lavaca, Ark.; Misty Johnson, 28, of Lavaca, Ark.; Shea Johnson, 3, of Lavaca, Ark., Paul Tailele Jr., 39, of Magna, Utah; Wayne Martin, 49, of Norman, Okla.; Susan Martin, 49, of Norman, Okla.; Jerry Gillion, 58, of Spiro, Okla.; Patricia Gillion, 57, of Spiro, Okla.; David Mueggenborg, 52, of Okarche, Okla.; and Jean Mueggenborg, 51, also of Okarche.

The medical examiner ruled the manner of death as accidental drowning on 13 victims, with one dead from blunt trauma to the head.

Washburn and Wilhoit humbly insist that they are not heroes. In fact, they were doing what anyone else on the scene would have done. They regret they couldn't have done more.

Because of the tragic events, tournament director Carl Woods cancelled the bass competition. As the shaken Washburn and Wilhoit reflected on the emotional events that had unfolded that day, they chose to unwind in the best manner they knew. The two fishermen climbed into their boat and went fishing.

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