Bridge collapse raises spiritual issues

BY PJ HELLER | WEBBERS FALLS, OK | May 29, 2002



"There's a lot of stress in that, especially if there's children involved."

—Eddie White


For people seeking word about the fate of those who may have perished in the Arkansas River after a barge collapsed a section of bridge, the most agonizing thing is not knowing whether their loved ones are dead or alive.

"The hardest part of this whole thing is the waiting, the not knowing," said Eddie White, chaplain with the Muskogee County Sheriff's Office.

White has been in Webbers Falls since Sunday when the barge slammed into the columns supporting the bridge on Interstate 40, plunging a 500-foot section of the 2,000-foot span into the murky waters. He, along with several other chaplains who volunteered their services, are trying to minister to those who are coming to learn the fate of friends and family members who may have been on the bridge.

"We're trying to do whatever we can for them, spiritually, making sure they're fed, making sure they're comfortable and trying to comfort them in whatever way we can," he said Monday night.

The bodies of 14 people were recovered by Wednesday. Authorities said more victims may remain to be found in the tangle of metal and concrete in the river. At least six vehicles are believed to still be in the 11-foot deep water. Ten vehicles have already been pulled from the river.

Five people escaped with injuries when their cars plunged into the water.

Divers from the Highway Patrol were expected to resume their search this morning. Their efforts have been slowed by poor visibility and the threat of bad weather.

"We know there's family members out there that are wondering, 'Is there one of my own in the water there?''" said diver Dennis Splawn.

White, an ordained Baptist minister for 35 years, said he expected it would be at least until Thursday before the recovery effort was completed and the bodies were identified. Nine of the victims have been identified so far.

White said he is encouraging the handful of people who have come to Webbers Falls City Hall to check on others to return home and wait to be contacted.

"They come and they're expecting something to happen," he said. "They don't know and they don't realize what a tremendous task it is to get those bodies out of there. We're not going to tell them anything until we get positive identification."

Once a positive ID is made by the medical examiner, White is called so that the faith-based community can minister to the families.

More than 500 telephone calls have been fielded from people asking for information about friends and family who may have been traveling across the bridge. At one point, there was a car reported missing with at least eight children inside. It subsequently arrived at its destination.

"They were just late," White noted. "We just praised God over that."

In addition to ministering to those coming to check on loved ones, four chaplains were staffing the main command post at the bridge site where recovery operations were taking place, White reported.

"They're there mainly for the spiritual uplift of the recovery crew," he said. "There's a lot of stress in that, especially if there's children involved. A lot of times they (rescue crews) need somebody to be there to help them with their spiritual needs."

White said ministers from towns surrounding Webbers Falls have offered their services as well. White has served with the sheriff's office since August. He also was a chaplain with the fire and police departments and the Department of Corrections.

The American Red Cross was assisting on the scene, along with the Salvation Army. White's wife, a volunteer with the Red Cross, went to the scene with him on Sunday. After preaching at Temple Baptist Church in Muskogee, he was alerted to the bridge collapse. He has been at the scene ever since.

"I'll be there as long as I'm needed," he said.

"We've pretty well taken care of all the [physical] needs that we can," he said. "What we need are prayers for the people who are waiting to hear. They're hurting, especially when they don't know. Sometimes it's almost a relief to find out one way or another. I don't mean it's a good thing. (But) It brings closure."

The bridge collapsed after a towboat pushing two empty barges upstream slammed into the columns supporting the span. Initial reports suggested the boat captain, Joe Dedmon, 61, may have blacked out. Preliminary tests on the 30-year towboat veteran showed no signs of alcohol or drug use, according to company officials.

Repairs on the bridge are expected to take six months, forcing motorists to find alternative routes. More than 20,000 vehicles typically cross the I-40 bridge each day.


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