MIAMITOWN, Ohio – Debbie Colegate watched in horror in her rear-view mirror.
She and her two young sons, ages 3 and 5, had just driven across the temporary wooden bridge over the Great Miami River when a 140-foot section of the bridge collapsed behind her.
Colegate said she saw a blue car fall into the river.
“It was like a horror story happening behind me in slow motion,” she told The Cincinnati Post.
The two women in the blue Mercury Cougar were 52-year-old Helen Zorn and her daughter, 27-year-old Terry Siemon. Both drowned.
The May 25, 1989 tragedy was nearly avoided. After receiving warnings, county officials had ordered the bridge closed just minutes before the Friday rush-hour accident.
Officials had been alerted that raging floodwaters from recent heavy rains were piling up debris under the bridge on Harrison Avenue near Ohio 128 and threatening to wash it away.
At 4:20 p.m., an employee of National Engineering, the company that built the temporary bridge and was building a new permanent bridge next to it, called Ken Scheidt, the Hamilton County Bridge Engineer, and reported that the one-lane span appeared unsafe.
At 5:19 p.m., almost an hour later, Schiedt called Chief Deputy Engineer William Brayshaw for authorization to close it. Brayshaw immediately gave the OK.
At 5:20 p.m., Scheidt called Highway Superintendent Larry Beck to tell him to put up barricades.
At 5:25 p.m., Scheidt called Beck again and told him National Engineering was calling the sheriff’s office to close the bridge. Scheidt told Beck he should call the sheriff’s office, too.
At 5:26 p.m., Beck called the sheriff’s office and a dispatcher told him, “Mr. Beck, you’re too late.”
The bridge had already collapsed from about the middle of the river to the west bank.
“We heard this loud crashing noise. We thought somebody hit the guardrail. We looked up. We saw half of the bridge falling down into the water,” said Ron Wells Jr., whose family owned the nearby Bridge Inn.
Ed Brater was waiting on the west side to drive across.
“The first thing I noticed was the guardrail. It was buckling a little bit on each side of the bridge,” Brater told The Enquirer. “It started sinking slowly, then the whole bridge started to go.”
After rushing to the scene, county officials told WCPO about the warning and conversations about closing the bridge.
“The trees and debris were building up like a beaver dam against the bridge and they were afraid it would weaken the bridge, so I ordered it closed at 5:19,” Brayshaw said.
Brayshaw said the bridge was sturdy. County Engineer Donald Schramm said pilings were dug about 45 feet into the river bed.
“These piles went way down," Brayshaw said. "They’re deep and they’ve held the bridge through all the high waters we’ve had this spring.
"It’s certainly been tested. There was really no way to anticipate anything like this,” Schramm told The Enquirer. “The river had been up to 21 feet just a couple of days earlier … We received no previous reports of any trouble.”
The normal river depth was 5 feet. It was 23 feet – 7 feet above flood stage - when the bridge collapsed.
Witnesses reported seeing other vehicles fall into the water. But two weeks of searching didn’t recover any other cars or bodies, and those reports were dismissed once all the missing persons were accounted for.
Zorn, 52, and Siemon, 27, were on their way to Metamora, Indiana, to shop for antique furnishings for Siemon’s new home in Cleves, Siemon's husband said. The two did everything together - from aerobics to bowling to shopping to vacations, he said. Siemon was an Oak Hills High School grad and worked at the Oak Hills Savings and Loan on Harrison Avenue.
The strong currents prevented boats and divers from safely entering the water for several days after the accident. Zorn’s body was discovered four days later about 5 miles downstream.
A full eight days afterward, sonar located the car on the river bottom about 100 feet from the bridge. A diver with special gear attached the straps and a crane lifted the wreckage – and Siemon’s body - to the shore.
In November 1990, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report blaming the County Engineer’s Office for three factors that contributed to the bridge collapse:
Selection of a design by National Engineering that did not consider lateral loads;
Failure to submit the bridge design plans to the Ohio Department of Transportation for review as required by state law;
Failure to promptly close the bridge when it became subject to significant debris loading.
The county settled lawsuits with the husbands of both victims.
The temporary bridge seemed like a great idea at the time, said Whitewater Township Trustee Dolores Welsh. It was the result of a compromise between the county and nearby residents and merchants.
Everyone agreed that a new bridge was needed to replace the 93-year-old Miamitown Bridge. The county had planned to detour traffic during construction, but a petition drive convinced officials to build the one-lane temporary bridge and keep traffic moving through town.
“At the time, everybody thought it was a great solution,” Welsh said.