The Manchac Bridge disaster

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 12, 2010

(Part one of a three-part series)

It was Sept. 13, 1974. I was a deputy sheriff in Tangipahoa Parish employed by Sheriff Frank M. Edwards Jr. I had worked the 3-11 shift and had left my patrol car at the sub-station for repair. Suddenly, I heard sirens blaring one after another and knew from my experience that something was terribly wrong. I called the office and learned that a barge had struck the Manchac Bridge, and the dispatcher had been told that both vehicles and people were in the water. I immediately picked up my unit and diving gear and responded to the scene.

Upon arriving at Manchac, I found crowds of people along the bridge. Some residents of Manchac were already in their boats in the water. I then saw several sections of the bridge were gone. One section of the bridge lay half in the water, a tractor-trailer truck was sitting on the half sticking out of the water. Apparently, when this section of bridge fell, one of the pilings under the bridge went through the bridge and came to rest under the motor of the tractor-trailer truck. This piling was now holding the truck in place, stopping it from rolling backwards into the water and saving the lives of the driver and passenger. This truck was loaded with tons of sugar. The back of the truck broke away with the weight pushing on the doors and tons of sugar had fallen into the water.

U.S. Highway 51, at this time, was the only roadway over South Pass, and it was an extremely busy highway all day long. From what witnesses observed, several vehicles had gone into the water, but no one was certain the total number. I could see upon my arrival, I would need help as soon I could possibly get it.

I had the dispatcher call my lifelong friend and dive partner, John Hoover Jr., at Ponchatoula High School, where he was a teacher. They told him to come to Manchac immediately because I needed assistance with the bridge recovery operation. We did not know at the time this would be the most challenging and dangerous dive of our lives.

The water was black with zero visibility, and the current headed toward Lake Pontchartrain with such force. It was the fastest current that I had ever seen in the pass. The water under the bridge was 50 feet deep, with broken concrete and wrought iron barbs sticking out everywhere. As one looked into the muddy water, you could see bubbles coming up and the water swirling around like something on the bottom was moving. We were hoping there might be a chance that if someone was trapped in a vehicle would have an air pocket to breath and we could dive down and save his or her life.

Look for part two of the story in the Wednesday, May 19, 2010, edition of L’Observateur.

Wayne Norwood is a lieutenant with the St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff’s Department and owner and operator of the Louisiana Trreasures Museum located at 10290 Highway 22, West Pontchatoula.