Monday, February 3rd, 1975
James C Venable, a real estate agent from the Winston Salem area is driving his white Ford Thunderbird down Siloam Rd near the town of Siloam, NC.
The night is dark, foggy, and there’s on and off drizzle and damp in the cold night air. At about 10 PM, Venable begins to cross the one lane bridge that spans the Yadkin River. What happens next is a matter of debate between the state of North Carolina, Venable, and several other parties, but in the end, 4 people will be dead and over a dozen more will be injured.
Venable tells his side of the story in a December, 1979 issue of Popular Mechanics, which ran an article on bridge construction and deterioration:
Venable drove his white Thunder-
bird up the cattle-shoot entrance to
the span, entering the 225-foot-long
deck across the river. He had gone
about two car lengths on the deck,
he recalls, when the car was thrown against the right side of the bridge. His head struck the left window. “I hit the brake and tried to pull the car away from the right side, Venable told PM. “I couldn’t do it. Then it hit on the left side. I looked up at the overhead trusses. They were leaning and moving around. The damn bridge was going down while I was on the middle of the span. The last thing I remember, I was bewildered because the car
wouldn’t stop. I passed out. When I woke up, I was sitting in icy cold water, in the dark, with my seat belt on.
Venable had no idea what had happened, but he knew he was in grave danger. The windows and doors wouldn’t open and the water was chest high. He reached under the water and undid his seat-belt, then pulled himself over the seat and kicked the back window out. He then thrust his chest out over the trunk.
Lying across the tail of his car was a Mustang, wheels in the air. Two girls who had been in the over-turned car had managed to escape and now they stood on the trunk of Venable’s Thunderbird, the river rushing around them.
“Are you hurt?” they asked. “Help me,” Venable said. But there was little they could do. Venable, who weighed 225 pounds, was stuck in the window. When the girls tried to pull him out, the glass remaining in the window frame began cutting into him. He pulled a pocket- knife from his pants and tried to hack away the back-seat padding to
free himself. The knife slipped out of his fingers. “About that time I looked up and saw a car falling from the opposite side of the river,” Venable said. “You could see the lights through the fog, starting level, then curving down toward the river. And right behind it another car came in, the same way, and you could hear the screaming and booming. And I thought ‘It’s like chariots of death.’ I pulled everything in me to escape from my car, and I squeezed out.
Venable didn’t know the scope of the terror until much later, after he had swum down river, pulled him. self up the bank and met rescuers. The entire bridge had fallen into the
In all, seven vehicles soared off the piers and dropped the 30 feet into the river. Sixteen people were injured. Four others died.
The cause of the collapse was at first blamed on state negligence. The old bridge had been built originally on High Rock Lake but was disassembled and rebuilt over the Yadkin River in the late 1930’s. Even though the span was made of steel, the decking was wood planking, and reportedly in bad shape. The steel was also noted to be severely rusted in places.
Locals, including Samuel Hugh Atkinson, who would be one of the people to die in the collapse had urged the state to tear down the old bridge and build something safer, but budget constraints and the rural location of the bridge apparently factored into the lack of a response. It’s rumored that Atkinson’s family found a letter he was writing to the governor about the bridge in one of his coat pockets after his death.
However, the state investigation of the collapse, which was carried out by Modjeskl and Masters, a bridge engineering firm, would ultimately point the finger at Venable himself as the cause of the disaster. Their claim was that the bridge was structurally sound for what it was rated for, and the construction of the bridge was actually superior to many steel bridges of it’s age. Venable had simply hit a crucial part of the support structure, which had destabilized and collapsed the bridge. This would mean that the bridge was not already collapsing, as Venable had claimed, but that it only begin to fall after he collided with a support.
In the aftermath, there was a flurry of attention, words, and some actual action.
State legislators saw a grand opportunity to appear sympathetic to voters, and began having photo ops in front of the bridge wreckage and calling for more funds for repair of secondary roads and bridges. Whether or not any of the bluster amounted to much of anything is up for debate.
The federal government did step in with funds for repair, citing the collapse as a catastrophic emergency that qualified for federal aid.
At first, the idea of just placing a temporary bridge was ruled out due to the rocky nature of the Yadkin River bed. However, with the help of the Army Corp of Engineers, a bridge that had been in storage in Ohio was shipped south and engineers from Ft. Bragg began work on the temporary bridge in early June and actually had the bridge erected by the 25th of the same month when a dedication was held. The new bridge would be called the Atkinson-Needham Memorial Bridge in honor of the members of the Needham and Atkinson family who had died as a result of the collapse.
It took almost six more months before construction on a permanent span across the Yadkin River could begin, with nearly a million dollars set aside for the project. It would be finished in September of 1976, and another dedication ceremony was held, with survivors and their families in attendance.
In February of 1977, two years after the initial collapse, the families of Hugh and Ola Atkinson and Judy Brown and Andrea Needham filed suit against 46 state highway officials and James Venable, asking for $200,000 per person in claims. In the end, the state set aside $151,000 in compensation for the families of the dead and also those injured in the collapse. I cannot find any sources detailing what became of the lawsuit.
Today, there’s little to remind drivers of the bridge’s tragic past. What appears to be nothing more than a nondescript rural crossing over the Yadkin is only marked with a nondescript sign giving the name the new bridge was christened with.
But nearly 50 years ago, seemingly everyone in the state, and many in the nation knew the name Siloam.
“…those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”