Twenty years ago in the early morning hours of Oct. 26, a dredge working in Oregon Inlet was torn from its moorings in a nasty northeaster and slammed into the Bonner Bridge
The U.S. Coast Guard was notified about 1 a.m. from crew members of the Northerly Island who radioed that the dredge was dragging its anchor and was within 50 feet of the bridge. The barge collided with the bridge at about 1:30.
Dare County deputies and Highway Patrol officers raced to close both ends of the bridge and even picked up several crew members who had scrambled up the crane of the 130-foot-tall vessel and jumped onto the 90-foot tall bridge.
All of the vehicles were reported off the bridge by about 2:14 a.m., and the first section of the damaged bridge fell into the inlet at 2:18. Eventually four more sections collapsed and by daylight there was a startling 370-foot gap in the span.
We are always hearing about how we can remember exactly where we were when we learned of traumatic or important events in our lives.
I was a senior in high school between 5th and 6th period classes when we heard the news that President John F. Kennedy had been shot on Nov. 22, 1963. My sister was driving me home from Chowan Hospital in Edenton after hip surgery when we heard on the radio about the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
And on Oct. 26, 1990, I had just arrived at my office at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., when I heard that the Bonner Bridge had collapsed – or partially collapsed, as it turned out.
My executive assistant came rushing into my office to breathlessly give me the news. A colleague, who was quite familiar with my attachment to Hatteras, had called to leave me the message.
I laughed. I thought it was a joke.
I was to leave Sunday for a board meeting of the American Newspaper Editors in Dallas, Tex. From there, I would fly to Norfolk, rent a car, and drive to Hatteras to join my soon-to-be husband, C.A. Boxley, for the Anglers Club Surf Fishing Tournament, planned for the first weekend in November. (No, I wasn’t going to fish. Just help him judge the teams and go to the rollicking dance that used to end the event.)
On the Monday after the tournament, I was to go to Norfolk State University to interview candidates for summer internships at the newspaper.
It was a nice plan until I turned on the TV news and found out it wasn’t a joke. Part of the bridge did fall down. And the amazing thing was that no one was injured.
I couldn’t get in touch with C.A.
The electric power lines and fiber optic cable for telephone service also came down with the bridge.
So there was no electricity, no phones, and no water in some villages that relied on electricity to power their pumps.
However, I do not easily give up opportunities to visit Hatteras – and I did not intend to this time.
Saturday night, C.A. called from some telephone that was working, asked me to call his family, and said he would make arrangements for me to cross the inlet.
I headed to the meeting in Dallas and talked to him one more time. He told me an enterprising captain, Spurgeon Stowe, of Hatteras was ferrying passengers back and forth across the inlet from the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center to Hatteras village. So he made arrangements for Spurgeon to pick me up on the evening of my arrival, Oct 31 – Halloween.
I got through the meeting in Dallas, got the plane, which was on time, rented a car and drove as fast as I could to get to the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center by the appointed time – 5 p.m. I think.
I parked the rental and dragged this big suitcase – full of city work clothes and beach clothes – to the boat slip where I was to meet Spurgeon. I was early but no one was there.
I went into the marina store and asked if anyone had seen Spurgeon.
“Oh, honey,” a nice woman said, “the Coast Guard ran him out of here yesterday for not having permits or something.”
Then, she added, “Honey, if you want to get to Hatteras, you better get on that boat that is leaving now. It’s the last one tonight.”
I looked out the window and saw a World War II era landing craft. The craft had been transporting only emergency supplies and vehicles until today. Today was the first day that it was ferrying passengers to Hatteras Island – but only residents, and I wasn’t a resident yet.
Since the phones were now working, I called C.A. and there was no answer.
I looked out at the landing craft again and the crew members were starting to pull up the door – or whatever they call it.
I made up my mind.
I grabbed the huge suitcase again and ran as fast as I could toward that boat. The guys saw me and lowered the front door thing and I ran right on. No one asked for any identification.
So I found a seat and starting wondering if C.A. would be there on the north end of the island to meet me. Did he know Spurgeon wasn’t running passengers anymore? Did he know I would arrive on the north end? What did he think I would do? (We didn’t have cell phones in those days.)
It was a lovely ride of a little more than an hour as we zigzagged through the inlet and around shoals. The sun had set and the sky was painted with the gorgeous colors that I have seen only in Outer Banks sunsets. The evening was warm and pleasant.
Eventually, we arrived on the northern tip of Hatteras, the door-thing was lowered and we all walked off the craft. I was still dragging the damn suitcase.
There was a group of folks gathered to pick up friends and relatives, and, thankfully, C.A. was among them. I was happier than usual to see him.
We loaded up the baggage, headed down Highway 12, and stopped at the Pea Island Visitor Center, which then had little more than rustic bathrooms that were the main reason most folks stopped.
When we got out of the car, the sky was still a gorgeous orange and red and the geese were just honking their heads off. It really sounded like a pack of barking dogs, but what a wonderful sound.
There were not many trick-or-treaters that night, but we did have our six hours of power to cook dinner. At that point, we had electricity but in some villages that rotated off and then back on every six hours.
I remember it as a wonderful weekend, even though the Anglers Club tournament was cancelled for the first time since it began. This year is the 53 rd tournament, so that must have been the 33rd.
We did fish, and I caught my first puppy drum. The beach was lovely, and the days were warm. We visited with friends, drove the beach, went shelling, and had a very nice weekend.
I remember the presence of emergency vehicles and the National Guard. I don’t remember any grocery shortages – or shortages of beer or spirits.
Everyone seemed in a good mood now that the thousands of tourists had exited through Ocracoke to the mainland. It was almost like a vacation.
But underneath it all was an undercurrent of not fear but concern for what would happen next.
How long would the bridge be out? How would the fall tourists get here to enjoy the popular fishing season and the Thanksgiving holidays? How would they support themselves in a tourist economy with no tourists – or at least very few?
Those questions were answered in time. At first, some said the bridge would be back by Christmas. Others said it would take six months.
Actually, the newly repaired bridge was opened to traffic on Feb. 12, 1991, after 3 1/2 months.
Some tourists did come to fish, but the lines were long – way long – to get on the temporary ferry across Oregon Inlet. A lot more tourists came for Thanksgiving and it was somewhat of a nightmare moving them all on and off the island.
Many Hatteras and Ocracoke businesses had a tough winter – one they hope to never see again. But like islanders do, they toughed it out.
The most amazing and miraculous aspect of the bridge accident was that no one was injured and islanders thanked God for that.
The fact that the collision came in the middle of the night was beyond fortuitous. In the middle of the afternoon, the aftermath probably would have been very ugly in terms of death and/or injuries.
Now, we, as islanders and visitors, face the fear again. Will there be another collision, perhaps much more serious now that the bridge is 20 years older and more decrepit? Or will the bridge just fall down one day – when people are traveling over it? Will it deteriorate to the point that there will be load limits – limiting vehicles and supply trucks?
And the battle has continued over replacing the bridge for the past 20 years.
The U.S. Department of the Interior –a powerful federal agency that one might assume is full of at least some smart people – and powerful environmental groups that we know are full of smart lawyers have made it a point in their latest comments on replacing the bridge to say that we ought to be considering ferries.
Now can you believe that after the 3-plus months of chaos and economic loss when the bridge was out of commission 20 years ago?
Surely, these people cannot believe that ferries are a really good idea for moving thousands of people off and on the island, not to mention groceries, supplies, and fuel.
I hope you will read Catherine Kozak’s retrospective on that day 20 years ago. In it, many folks recount and remember what it was like, especially in those first weeks. And none of them want to rely on ferries again – not ever again. The article is on the Local News Page.
If you lived here, it will bring back some bittersweet memories. If you didn’t, you will find out why we need a new Bonner Bridge and not a new fleet of ferries.
As for me, I headed off Hatteras on Monday, Nov. 5, just before the temporary ferries started running again. I left on one of those landing craft with a handful of other passengers and a few official vehicles.
We got stuck on a sandbar and sat in the inlet until the tide rose enough to float us off – probably an hour or hour and a half.
I missed my interviews at Norfolk State and my plane back to Louisville. But it was worth it to be on Hatteras for that beautiful weekend and to understand what life without a land link is like.
I came back one more time before the bridge re-opened. That was after Christmas and that was on a temporary ferry that almost got me fogged in on the other side of the inlet for the night. The ferries had not run most of the day, but the ferry division decided to run one more. I sweated it, but I got on it.
Today, if you look carefully as you drive over the bridge, you can still faintly see the repaired sections. They have faded with time, but you can still pick them out -- on the northern side of the bridge about halfway up the rise to the top.