Baltimore bridge collapse brings back memories of Oklahoma’s 2002 I-40 bridge collapse


The tragic tanker collision that brought down the Baltimore, Maryland bridge and perhaps claimed six lives was a stark reminder of a similar incident that occurred 22 years ago in eastern Oklahoma.

However, instead of half a dozen lives lost, 14 people were killed when a barge hit the I-40 bridge over the Arkansas River at Webbers Falls, Oklahoma. A 580-foot section of the bridge collapsed and cars and tractor-trailers plunged into the muddy river as drivers were unable to stop in time.

The incident was blamed on a blackout suffered by the barge captain Joe Demon. He lost control and his barge plowed into a pier that supported the bridge. The National Transportation Safety Board later concluded the blackout was apparently caused by an unforeseeable abnormal heart rhythm.

Heavy rain fell at the time and rescuers later determined that eight passenger vehicles and three semi-trucks had plunged into the river. Some of the survivors were rescued by fishermen who were taking part at the time in a bass fishing tournment near the bridge. The rescuers attempted to stop vehicles and one even fired a slare at a tractor-trailer driver to get him to stop.

Three survivors were among those who managed to escape their vehicles and swim to shore.

It was a year later when victims of the collapse settled a lawsuit with the towboat company, Magnolia Marine Transport Co. of Mississippi.

After the tragedy, the town of Webbers Falls erected a 14-foot-tall bronze sculpture using pieces of the wreckage. Atop the sculpture is a young girl reaching to release a dove. She represents the youngest victim—a 3-year-old girl. Fourteen granite plaques make up the memorial in honor of each victim.