20 years ago a runaway dredge
tore a hole
in the Bonner Bridge, and islanders
and visitors relied on temporary ferries for months…WITH SLIDE SHOW
pounding the Outer Banks as Mickey Baker and Carmie Prete
home to Ocracoke Island that October night 20 years ago, intent on
beating the heavy weather before Highway 12 flooded. As they crossed
the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, they spied something odd looming in the
darkness, just off the span.
looked to the left, and there was the dredge,” Baker recalled in an
interview last week. “Right there --- the crane and everything.”
equipment’s close proximity was remarkable enough to comment on, she
said, but not ominous enough to interrupt their hurried journey.
wasn’t until the next morning that the women, then owners of the Island
Ragpicker, learned that the 130-foot high dredge Northerly Island
slammed into the Bonner Bridge at 1:28 a.m., causing a 370-foot section
to collapse about an hour later into the swirling Oregon Inlet. With it
went the telephone and electric power lines that ran under the bridge.
The storm-tossed dredge, working earlier on the east side of the
bridge, had lost its moorings at about 10:30 p.m. Dragging
anchors, straining against wind gusts up to 90 mph, the 200-foot vessel
lumbered intractably toward the bridge. At 1 a.m., the
notified the Coast Guard. Police rushed in to stop traffic.
Moments before the dredge rammed the span, the last vehicle on the
bridge had reached safety. Miraculously, no one was injured.
Oct. 26, 1990, Hatteras and Ocracoke islands lost their only land link
to the mainland. It would be 3 1/2 months before they got it
In between, they made-do with unreliable ferry transportation and Outer
months serve as glowing examples of the resilience and goodness of
islanders, and how government response can be capable and efficient.
months also proved how critical a bridge over Oregon Inlet is to Dare
County commerce and the islanders’ lifestyle and quality of life ---
and why many are appalled at suggestions that ferries could be used
instead of replacing the aged Bonner Bridge.
just not a viable solution,” said Tommie Gray, a Hatteras resident and
former information technology director for Dare County, who often took
the hour and a half ferry ride over the inlet.
the bridge collapsed, it wasn’t only the year-round island residents
--- about 5,000 on Hatteras and 650 on Ocracoke ---who found themselves
forced to cope. Thousands of visitors were thrust from
bliss into being virtual prisoners of their vehicles. Emergency orders
entrapped them for entire days and nights --- as much as 36 to 48 hours
--- in long evacuation lines. The only exit initially from
Hatteras was to take the Hatteras Inlet ferry to Ocracoke, make the
13-mile trip to Ocracoke village, and then ferries running to Cedar
Island and Swan Quarter on the mainland.
course, the visitors leaving Hatteras for the mainland ferries were
vying for space with the tourists who were trapped in Ocracoke.
of vehicles lined Highway12 on Ocracoke, stretching about 13 miles from
the Hatteras Inlet ferry dock to the edge of the village. Every five
hours or so, another ferry would load up and leave.
with an invasion of hungry people, Ocracokers leaped to help. Residents
collected their canned soups, and tossed the contents together into big
cauldrons borrowed from local restaurants. Then, driving down the line,
they served trapped visitors the hot concoction in paper cups from the
back of their pickup trucks.
of the best memories I have is a couple of tourists saying, ‘You people
on Ocracoke make the best soup,’” Baker said, chuckling.
dozen or more islanders went up and down the line --- at
one person was required to stay in the vehicle --- and asked what
supplies the occupants needed, Baker recalled. The
were then purchased on credit by the volunteer at the local grocery
store. The cost was scribbled on the bag and it was delivered to the
vehicle occupant, who would then pay for it.
needed everything from Tampax to baby food,” she said. “We were the
some point, the Red Cross showed up, supplying peanut butter sandwiches
and bologna sandwiches. Porta-potties were brought
school auditorium was opened up for the frail, young and old.
were feeding the people and they were saying, ‘These are the best
sandwiches we have ever had,” said Baker, who with Prete now owns
Mermaid’s Folly on Ocracoke.
it was a time!”
For years, people who were in the line would stop in the store to
reacquaint. Baker heard later that one group of evacuees bonded so
closely during the ordeal, that after leaving the ferry, they had
driven in an unbroken line all the way to Morehead City.
just thought that was beautiful,” she said.
the National Guard arrived, bringing mounds of blankets and sleeping
bags. Some people opened up their mobile trailers and created
ad-hoc day care centers for the car-bound children. Others shared
drinks and played music outside their vehicles. Many evacuees
made the rounds, communing as if the vehicles were a stretched-out line
of bar stools.
reaction from the people here toward all the stranded people was just
above and beyond,” said Ruth Fordon, today the editor of the Ocracoke
Observer. “It was just pretty remarkable to see.”
O’Neal, owner of Island Artworks, was then employed by the state Ferry
Division and assigned to directing traffic onto the boats that were
taking visitors off Hatteras. Everyone located south of
Inlet had been ordered to evacuate, and Hatteras was the funnel.
remembers the line of vehicles encircling the parking lot at the ferry
dock, up the highway, through the village, and all the way to the
campground. Working 16-hour shifts, living off candy bars, O’Neal said
she wore a heavy down parka to stay warm in the abnormally cold
was just so tired,” she said. “To me, it was worse than any hurricane
evacuation ever was. People in the cars were angry they couldn’t get
off. A lot of people were making up emergencies.”
County Sheriff Bert Austin , said that old World War II landing craft
were brought in initially to provide emergency transportation across
Oregon Inlet for heavy equipment and vendor trucks. The
meanwhile, hurried to build emergency ferry ramps at the inlet.
was unbelievable,” he said. “The Department of Transportation did an
79, said that he remembers that there were some angry people, but
overall there were no significant law enforcement issues.
everybody was understanding,” he said, adding, “but you always have a
villages of Avon, Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras had water, although they
were advised to conserve it in case of fire or other
The residents of Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo did not have water, since
electricity was required to power the water
was very limited until emergency generators were delivered from
emergency officials and the North Carolina Electric Membership Corp. in
Raleigh. Electric service was restored to the island with these
generators on Monday, Oct. 29. However, for a time, residents
Buxton, Frisco, and Avon had electricity on a six-hour rotating
basis. It also took days to reroute phone service. Special
arrangements were made for delivery of mail and medicines.
trucks were able to get through first on World War II-era landing craft
and then on the ferries, so supplies for island-locked people were
adequate, said Allen Burrus, owner of Burrus Red & White
Supermarket in Hatteras, joking that beer trucks were given priority.
who is currently the vice-chairman of the Dare County Board of
Commisioners, was at that time a member of the county Board of
Education. In that role, he often had to take the sometimes arduous
voyage across the inlet. Ferries ran through the night,
permitting. But with the unpredictable conditions, even buses of
student athletes had to wait out the weather on the ferry.
“People got stranded,” he recalled, “and we just hunkered down and did
the Oregon Inlet side, the Ferry Division assigned Clay Harris as
nighttime port captain, overseeing operations from shore. Harris said
it took about 30 minutes to unload the”worn-out and tired” landing
craft that operated until the ferry ramps were built in an impressive
a 24-year-old Avon resident, Harris said he worked 23 days without a
break, sleeping at a Manteo hotel, until management told him he needed
to take a break. Two single-wide trailers were stationed onsite to
serve breakfast and lunch to workers.
ferries would run around the clock in the inlet, each transporting
about 30 cars in about 60 minutes ---- in perfect weather.
would get so foggy that sometimes the boat had to stop in transit and
we had to idle it,” said Harris, currently the ferry division’s chief
engineer at Hatteras.
were frequent groundings in the fog, especially at night, because the
channel was very narrow. And the current was strong. We were lucky ---
most of our boats were new at the time.”
had to take a circuitous W-shaped route from the fishing center into
Walter Slough, Harris recalled. They would then have to make a sharp
turn at Hell’s Gate toward the bridge, make another dogleg turn toward
Davis Slough, then head south to the other side.
the Hatteras -class ferries could not operate in the 6.5-mile channel
if winds exceeded 35 mph, he said.
Thanksgiving weekend, Harris remembers traffic backed up about three
miles from the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center all the way to Whalebone
Junction, with the parking lot completely filled with vehicles. It took
about six to eight hours for those in the back to reach the front of
times, people threatened Harris, including one angry man who said he
would “whip my ass,” he said. Harris sent him inside to see Herbert
Jackson, the no-nonsense day port captain.
guy came out with his head down and went back to his car.”
other occasions, Harris said that the police had to be called
And he said that trouble makers included some tipsy locals who were
upset about not being able to get back to the island fast enough.
spots aside, Harris said, the emergency operation was humming along
after the first month. According to a February, 1991 article
The Virginian-Pilot, a total of five ferries and one landing craft
carried 85,000 vehicles starting Nov. 7, with 80 of the ferry
division’s 140 staff stationed at Oregon Inlet.
had quite a few who didn’t mind the trip and they went back and forth
regularly,” Harris said about the islanders.
not to say a ferry system in Oregon Inlet could replace the bridge, he
said. New ferry ramps have since been built at Stumpy Point
Rodanthe for emergency service, and the 1 hour 20 minute trip was made
successfully by several ferries for a few days after last November’s
with the island’s growth and development, it could never
community adequately in the busier months, when thousands of people
cross the span daily.
don’t know how they’d do it,” Harris said. “I really don’t.”
Rosell, a Frisco resident who had come over the bridge an hour before
it was hit, had to have medicine shipped in for her sick cat. Although
she did not leave the island until after the bridge was restored, her
parents came to visit from West Virginia just for the adventure of
riding the ferry.
owner of Buxton Village Books, said that the community is not quite the
same as it was in 1990. Back then, people were used to squirreling away
money to use in a crisis, rather than depending on credit.
were less expensive, most everyone knew each other, and everyone shared
and pitched in to do what was required.
don’t think,” she said, “we would fare as well now as we did
took 110 days and about $5.6 million to repair the bridge, which
re-opened two weeks ahead of schedule on the evening of Feb.
captain William O. Cliett of Savannah, Ga., was found not guilty of
Coast Guard charges of negligence and misconduct.
Islanders suffered an economic toll, losing much of the fall fishing
and Thanksgiving business because most visitors didn’t want to wait in
line for hours to get on and off the temporary ferries.
two decades later, a final plan to replace the wounded and patched
47-year old Bonner Bridge has still not been approved.
article, "Shooting the Breeze,"
the editor's blog at
the top of the front page.
to see the album that Ocracokers made and filled with letters from the
thousands of stranded visitors they aided in the days after Oct. 26,
1990, when all of Hatteras and Ocracoke visitors – thousands of them
-- had to leave by ferry from Ocracoke village to the