Covington, TN Bridge Collapses Into Hatchie River, Apr 1989

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Covington, Tenn. (AP) -- Divers hampered by stormy weather searched today for more bodies in the rain-swollen Hatchie River, where at least seven people plunged to their deaths after a 60-foot section of a half century old bridge collapsed.
Months of flooding on the Hatchie may have eroded the foundation of a bridge pier, causing the U.S. 51 span to fail Saturday night, said the state highway commissioner.
An inch of rain overnight and bursts of quarter-size hail hampered the search for more victims, but a team of nine divers who re-entered the flooded river this morning planned to osearch as long as the weather would permit.
"It was just terrible," CECIL WHALEY, operations officer for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, said today. "We are facing a 60 to 80 percent chance of the same type of weather today."
"It is just going to be extremely difficult to justify the divers staying in the water that long. Lightning is also a problem."
A tractor-trailer rig and at least four other vehicles fell 25 feet into the river.
A 1987 inspection found no abnormalities, but the collapse probably will lead the state to review its procedures, said BILL MOORE, a state transportation department inspector.
"We certainly will look at other bridges after this failure. We'll probably re-evaluate our whole program of inspection on this type of bridge," MOORE said Sunday.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators were to meet with state bridge inspectors today, authorities said.
The collapse of the two-lane northbound bridge occurred Saturday night about 45 miles north of Memphis. A companion two-lane southbound bridge was unaffected, although it remained closed following the cave-in, the Tennessee Highway Patrol said.
It was not known how many people were riding on the bridge when it crumbled, authorities said.
"Some of the cars are chopped up so bad they're not sure how many cars they are talking about," said WHALEY.
"They don't have good eyewitness accounts to determine how many cars were on the bridge."
Among the seven bodies recovered were those of a trucker and his wife who had been returning home with a tractor-tailer they had just bought in Memphis, police said.
BILLY HERRON, SR., 49, of Ripley was driving the 18-wheeler and his wife, BETTY, was following in a pick-up truck, said Henning Police Chief CHARLES FAIN. HERRON'S parents, who had eaten dinner with their son that night in Covington, apparently crossed the bridge just before it failed, FAIN said.
Also recovered were the bodies of MARY ANNETTE DAVIDSON and her husband, JIMMY DAVIDSON, of Ripley.
The bodies of WILMA BONDS, JR., a 49-year-old Jehovah's Witness minister, his wife, BARBARA, 25, and their 4-year-old daughter, SOPHIA, of Ripley, were pulled out Saturday night, FAIN said.
"He never went to town otherwise. The only time we ever knew they were in town was coming or going to church. They were real religious, going to church every night." FAIN said.
The Hatchie was at 14.7 feet, 2.7 feet over flood stage, about where the accident occurred, the National Weather Service said.

Logansport Pharos-Tribune Indiana 1989-04-03