Anniversary of Grim Event: Collapse of Mianus River Bridge, June 28, 1983

This article is written based on information from the Greenwich Library Oral History “Mianus River Bridge Collapse,” which is a compilation of interviews conducted in the 80s and 90s. In addition, GFP interviewed Retired  Greenwich Police Lt. Tom Keegan and Sergeant Jeff Moran on June 26, 2015.

It was about 1:30am on June 28, 1983 that a 100 ft section of the Mianus River Bridge on I-95 collapsed. Constructed in 1958, The bridge, used a pin-and-hanger system, which failed after years of harsh weather conditions and a higher volume of traffic than anticipated.

Mianus Bridge May 2017 Photo: Leslie Yager

Mianus Bridge May 2017 Photo: Leslie Yager

The collapsed span hurled six people into the river 75 feet below, killing three and critically injuring three others, though many people have observed it would have been worse if the collapse had been at rush hour. For many longtime Greenwich residents, the the moment they learned of the collapse and memories of snarled traffic haven’t faded.

There were no cell phones in 1983. Nor was there Twitter or texting to spread the word in-the-moment, as social media allows today. Residents  learned about the catastrophe when their landline rang, or when they tuned in to WGCH radio or read about it the next day in the paper.

At Greenwich Police HQ in 2015, retired Police Lt. Tom Keegan recalled the moment he learned of the collapse 32 years ago.

“I was the arresting officer of two burglars on Greenwich Ave. They had burglarized the Korean vegetable market next to the Post Office and we were processing them,” Keegan recalled, adding that there was a speaker in the report room in the old police station.

“The police dispatcher sent Car 53, who was officer Peter Domiziano, to Route 95, the Mianus bridge, on a report of a tractor trailer hitting the guard rail. That’s what the report was,” he said of the initial information.

Keegan recalled how a few minutes later, Officer Domiziano reported from the scene, “I remember this vividly. He said, ‘There is no Mianus Bridge.'”

Pulling wreckage from the scene. GHS Compass 1984

Pulling wreckage from the scene. GHS Compass 1984

Truck driver David Pace and his wife Helen were both interviewed by the NTSB on June 29, 1983, the day after the collapse. Both survived despite their tractor trailer plunging into the river. Their truck was full of beef roasts which turned up everywhere and some people interviewed described seeing the pieces of meat and mistaking them for bodies. Helen Pace described blacking out and then hearing splashing. She came to in water up to her neck. Her husband was sitting on the truck’s open door because the cab had landed on its side. He was able to pull Helen across the truck cab and onto the door. They describe climbing over the truck’s roof to get to the nice people in boats who took them aboard and to safety.

In her interview Helen recalled that the boats couldn’t get closer because access was blocked by a submerged BMW. She would later learn that the driver and passenger both perished.

William “Billy” Anderson, a 30-year-old Tennessee resident working on a PhD in chemistry and his girlfriend Shannon Kelly were interviewed in August 1983 by NTSB. Billy described coming to a stop in the center lane at the edge of the gaping hold in the bridge. They were just behind the Paces’ truck and described watching it it brake and jackknife before going over the edge.

GHS Compass yearbook 1984

Billy and Shannon each recalled the realization of what had happened, and concluding that they had to signal oncoming traffic to stop. Though they feared getting hit by cars, Billy watched in horror as the car he tried to flag down, didn’t brake in time. Thee car didn’t slow down, skidded and went straight over the edge. The next was a tractor trailer who did slow down and stop. After that, it was easy to get others to stop, Billy recalled.

Shannon recalled rushing back to her car, a Datsun registered to her mother,  and turning on the car’s hazard flashers and then running back to the guard rail to avoid getting hit by the tractor trailer. She described hearing the sound of metal on concrete, seeing sparks and then silence before getting out of the car.

When the bridge span collapsed into the river it was high tide. People who were on land nearby or in boats recall how it was such a hot night. Werner Albrecht, interviewed for the oral history in 1988, recalled that he was reading on his boat on the Mianus River on that hot night. He had just been thinking he should be going to sleep when the bridge collapsed. Albrecht described seeing sets of headlights dropping.

Summer of snarled traffic on Putnam Ave in Greenwich in 1983. Photo: GHS Compass yearbook 1984

Shannon describes how once she knew the oncoming traffic was stopped she was near enough the edge to hear water splashing below and could hear people calling for help. She got her flashlight and shined it down. She described seeing blood and saw a boat and someone already trying to help people. She heard people trying to reassure a badly injured woman, Eileen Weldon of Darien, who was pinned inside her car, and telling her help was on the way. Trucker Dave Pace recalled seeing Eileen’s car go over the edge alongside him, sliding as the concrete fell in sections.

“All I remember was a little car coming up beside my door,” Mr. Pace said in the oral history. He described feeling a vibration under his truck and hearing a crack like a bolt of lightning.

Tom Brown, a Connecticut State Trooper interviewed for the oral history project in 1989, credited Billy and Shannon for saving lives. Brown said he was on routine patrol and was around Exit 10 in Darien when he got the call that a car hit the abutment and flipped into the river. When he arrived on the southbound side of the bridge, traffic was still flowing, but pedestrians were standing on the bridge and staring into the gaping hole on the northbound side. He saw cars and trucks sticking out of the water and heard cries for help.

Chet West, a retired firefighter and dispatcher at central HQ of the Greenwich Fire Dept was interviewed for the oral history project in 1988. He recalled that he had been reading Guns of August when at 1:34am he heard the police scanner request that units look for a car that possibly went over the Mianus Bridge wall. He said that back in 1983 emergency personnel used a combination of radio scanners, pagers and land lines.

Mr. West said the phone soon started ringing at the fire department. It was firefighters who had heard on their radio scanners that something happened. He recalled that firefighter Larry Flynn responded to the scene, but took I95 but got stuck in traffic, an that Rick Shuttleworth took River Rd and recalls in the oral history hearing him over the radio microphone gasp, ‘Holy Christmas, the bridge fell!”

One of the trucks was hauling bottles and cans, and, as mentioned the Pace’s truck was carrying pot roasts. Werner Albrecht went back at dawn and said the scene made him think of Vietnam. He said there were four or five National Guard helicopters flying over the bridge and many emergency vehicles. He said Cos Cob was badly clogged with traffic from sightseers and emergency vehicles, and that when he walked down Buxton Lane, there were television crews and the truck was being pulled off the pylon.

Vito DeNardo, manager of the Palmer Point Marina in Cos Cob was interviewed for the oral history in 1991. He said he went over by boat with his wife around 5:30am to see what the commotion was about. He recalled how it was low tide and the emergency was well under control. “I think they were more intent in removing all the roast beefs that were floating around, because they were worried about a health problem at that stage,” he said.

Michael O’Connor, a lifelong resident of Greenwich and volunteer fireman and EMS volunteer who was interviewed by Meary Ellen LeBien in 1991 for the oral history, said he got a call on his “home box” from the fire house. He came down to Buxton Landing and found Eileen Weldon. “She’s pinned hanging upside down. She was moaning,” he said in the oral history. He described how she had been thrown backward and her legs were pinned between the bucket seats and the roof. He said decided not to take the time to put her on a back board because they were worried that with the heavy smell of fuel, there might be an explosion or fire.

The state trooper said he was worried another section might fall and that hundreds of people had gathered on the bridge might be in danger. He was worried another span of the bridge might collapse, and with traffic backing up, he had a truck make a u-turn and block traffic on the southbound side and stop it. Then a detour off I-95 southbound was put in place at Exit 5. Greenwich Police had already blocked I-95 northbound at Exit 4.

Trooper Brown said that all the vehicles were instructed to turn around and drive back, which he said took about 20 minutes.

In the oral history interview, O’Connor, who was both a fireman and EMS volunteer, said after the victims were taken away in boats to shore or with help of emergency workers into ambulances, the next step was to extricate the two deceased men inside the BMW and hose down the fuel. O’Connor remembered thinking the consequences of the collapse would go on for a long time. Indeed.

Retired Lt. Tom Keegan said that later in the morning of June 28, 1983, it took a while for traffic to back up in Greenwich, and that when he got done at police station around 4:30am, “The Post Road was just inundated with tractor trailers. I remember remarking to myself that there were just so many UPS trucks. Right then and there, it was just us – just 10 cops – trying to manage what amounted to be one of the worst highway disasters of modern history.”

Keegan described I-95 as the life blood of New England. “And all of a sudden it was severed.”

Stationing himself on Putnam Avenue directing traffic diverted from I-95, Keegan said, “What could we do other than to help the traffic get to where they wanted to get? Think about it. You’re in a strange town. ‘What do I do? How do I get back on I95?’ For the whole morning I was standing in the middle of the road saying, ‘Go down and take your third right, take your third right, take your third right,’ to truck after truck after truck after truck.”

“Crime Plummeted
Lt. Keegan, whose uncle Tom G. Keegan was Chief of Police back in 1983, recalled that in addition to horrendous local traffic congestion, there was another consequence to life in Greenwich.

“Crime plummeted in the Town of Greenwich!” Keegan said. “Statistically, across the board, you name it, it plummeted. Nobody wanted to come here.”

Still, according to the retired Lieutenant, the police were busy as ever. “We directed traffic seven days a week,” he said, adding that Greenwich residents, including local police, went out of their way to avoid  the area of River Rd and Strickland Rd all the way to Exit 5.

Sergeant Jeffrey Moran recalled how the accident started a bridge inspection program across the state and nation. Keegan joked that millions of people who claim to have gone over the Mianus bridge just before the accident.

“I was the first one there along with his brother [Chief Tom G Keegan] and Nick Maculaso,” Moran recalled. “We heard a tractor trailer had gone over the guard rail. I was down at the bottom at River Rd by the marina. There was a guy coming in from fishing on his boat, so we took his boat. There was just so much debris in the water, we couldn’t get any closer so we put on life preservers and swam to get closer,” he said, adding that although it was high tide and they couldn’t take their flashlights into the water, their eyes adjusted to the dim light.

“One of the trucks was carrying chunks of beef. When we bumped into them, we didn’t know whether they were bodies,” Moran recalled of swimming toward the scene. “There was also debris, beams from the bridges… and then we got up and walked on the beams.”

“There was a couple there who had scrambled out, and made it to shore already,” he said, referring to Helen and David Pace.

The day after the collapse, the tide had dropped. “Everything was just laying in the mud. You could just literally walk out to everything,” Sergeant Moran recalled.

Sergeant Moran also recalled the state working around the clock to build a small off-ramp onto River Road, funneling traffic to the Post Rd and to Exit 5, and the months-long traffic jam. “It was a traffic nightmare. Nonstop, everyone worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week,” he said.

“What I remember most that when the call came in – you kind of visualize things as you’re going to them –  I figured, okay, when I get there, I’ll probably see a truck, maybe it went over the guard rail. But when got there, I saw a truck in the water and, I looked up at the bridge there was a nice clean slice of it missing.”

“It took me about 15 seconds to process,” Moran recalled 32 years later. “A truck didn’t go over the railing. It took a while for my brain to process.”

Later that night in 1983, when Moran stopped at Greenwich Hospital to get some paperwork, he realized he was covered in oil and diesel fuel from the truck.

Sergeant Moran said that because police see tragic events including murders, suicides and car crashes resulting in deaths, and because prior to joining the police, he was a paramedic, “You kind of insulate yourself. It’s part of the job.” Still, he said, “That one was very dramatic. That was a little different.”