‘A helpless feeling’: Webbers Falls bridge collapse witness still thinks of those lost

·4 min read

First, there was a bang.

Ronnie Cole, a crop duster who now lives in Sallisaw, was prepping a plane three-quarters of a mile from the Webbers Falls bridge when he heard it.

Then came the screech.

“I can hear those sounds like they were yesterday,” Cole said. “We were getting an aircraft ready to put down fertilizer. We called highway patrol, and they said they’d gotten a report that the bridge had fallen.”

The day — May 26, 2002 — had started pleasantly enough for Cole.

Ronnie Cole, left, was one of the witnesses of the Webbers Falls bridge collapse on May 26, 2002.
Ronnie Cole, left, was one of the witnesses of the Webbers Falls bridge collapse on May 26, 2002.

He’d driven to work that morning on the U.S. 64 bridge north of where Interstate 40 crosses the Arkansas River. He saw scores of fishing boat lights twinkling in the darkness and thought of the floating paper lanterns he once saw in Germany.

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It only took seconds for everything to change.

Cole quickly learned that the “bang” was the sound of a barge hitting the Interstate 40 bridge, causing nearly 600 feet of roadway to collapse into the river. The screeching was the sound of feet stomping on brake pedals, tires grinding across asphalt as drivers attempted to stop short of the newly-opened abyss.

Cole’s boss, Paul Gould, hopped in the plane and took to the skies to survey the damage. Cole grabbed his radio and a cellphone, climbed into his Jeep and took off toward the Arkansas River.

Cole maneuvered the vehicle down to the river’s edge and climbed out.

By then, the scene was eerily silent. The dozens of boats he’d seen on the water that morning were down to just a few. Both sides of the bridge had crumbled. Cole scanned the water for anyone he could help. In the distance, a light blue trunk of a car bobbed in the current. But he had no boat. No rope. No way to see if anyone was inside.

“It’s a helpless feeling,” Cole said. “You can’t see anybody in the water. I didn’t have a boat. And the water was swift, it was really moving. You just always wish there was something you could have done.”

Cole knew this stretch of the river well. He and some friends water-skied here after graduating from high school. And he grew up fishing for catfish here with his father, who would paddle an old rowboat out into the river to set up trout lines. Cole said the current didn’t use to be so strong. He recalls one fishing trip where his father’s keys slipped from his pocket and into the water. His dad dove to the river bottom over and over searching fruitlessly.

“I don’t think he found them,” Cole said with a chuckle. “I think he had to hotwire the car.”

But in an instant, those fond memories were replaced by tragedy.

In total, 14 people died and 11 were injured. Bodies continued to be recovered for four days.

Cole talked to other bystanders and later learned of the rescue efforts by law enforcement and the fishermen he had seen that morning on his way to work.

BRIDGE COLLAPSE, WEBBERS FALLS, I-40, INTERSTATE 40, BARGE, HIT, COLLISION, DEATH, DEATHS, ARKANSAS RIVER:  Wreckage of Interstate 40 leads into the water on the West bank of the Arkansas river after a barge collided with a support on Sunday.
BRIDGE COLLAPSE, WEBBERS FALLS, I-40, INTERSTATE 40, BARGE, HIT, COLLISION, DEATH, DEATHS, ARKANSAS RIVER: Wreckage of Interstate 40 leads into the water on the West bank of the Arkansas river after a barge collided with a support on Sunday.

One fisherman had fired a flare into the sky, potentially alerting drivers to the danger and allowing them to stop in time. In a 2002 interview with CNN, bass fisherman Norman Barton credited angler Alton Wilhoit with firing the flare. Barton said Wilhoit and another fisherman, Kirk Washburn, then sprung to action and pulled truck driver Rodney Tidwell from the water. Barton was then able to rescue another driver, James Bilyeu, from the river.

“The real heroes are those fishermen that pulled that trucker out of the water and those divers that had to go down and do other recovery,” Cole said.

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The bridge collapse is now a part of Webbers Falls.

A monument to those lost was erected in Webbers Falls City Park a year after the collapse. Coincidentally, Cole’s 50-year high school graduation reunion will take place at the park in June.

“I’m sure we’ll be looking at it,” Cole said. “It's just part of our history now.”

The Webbers Falls Memorial Park honors the victims of the 2002 bridge collapse on the Arkansas River.
The Webbers Falls Memorial Park honors the victims of the 2002 bridge collapse on the Arkansas River.

With that history comes devastation that has been hard for survivors and witnesses to escape.

When reached by phone, Wilhoit’s voice broke as he explained he still can’t bear to speak about that day.

For Cole, the memories of the bridge collapse still infuse his day-to-day life.

He thought about it when his old boss Paul Gould died in 2020. And in the past year, he has begun watching YouTube videos of underwater rescues and recoveries.

“I don’t know why I’m doing that. I guess because I was thinking about Webbers Falls,” Cole said. “It just makes you feel good that they found these missing people. It helps give you some closure.”

Swift water still makes Cole nervous. And any time he drives across a river, he’s transported back to the day he heard the bang of a barge on the bridge and the screeching of tires.

BRIDGE COLLAPSE, WEBBERS FALLS, I-40, INTERSTATE 40, BARGE, HIT, COLLISION, DEATH, DEATHS, ARKANSAS RIVER: A piece of the I-40 bridge over the Arkansas River near Webbers Falls, Okla., rests on a barge that collided with the bridge Sunday morning, May 26, 2002. This aerial view is looking north west.
BRIDGE COLLAPSE, WEBBERS FALLS, I-40, INTERSTATE 40, BARGE, HIT, COLLISION, DEATH, DEATHS, ARKANSAS RIVER: A piece of the I-40 bridge over the Arkansas River near Webbers Falls, Okla., rests on a barge that collided with the bridge Sunday morning, May 26, 2002. This aerial view is looking north west.

“Every time I cross the bridge. Any bridge. I always think about it,” Cole said. “And I always look to see if a barge is coming.”

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This article originally appeared on The American South: Sallisaw resident recollects Webbers Falls bridge collapse