Manchac Bridge disaster: Day two

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 26, 2010

(Part three of a three-part series)

On the second day, nature was on our side. The current was less than half as fast as the day before, and visibility was much better. We could see almost two feet down. After almost two hours of diving, we came upon a large pile of concrete, and inside this pile was a pickup truck. I was able to get the license plate number and brought it to the men working in the boats. John and I then went back down. The truck was upside down in the concrete, and only the window on the passenger side was exposed. It was not even broken. The water was so murky and muddy we could not determine if anyone was inside or not.

We went back up to explain the situation to Sheriff Edwards. We would need rope and an iron bar to break the window. We went back down and broke the truck’s passenger side window. We still could not tell if anyone was inside of the cab without going inside the truck. Since I could not fit through the window with my dive tank on I took it off while John held it. This allowed me to enter the cab where I could see someone behind the steering wheel. I would then get a rope and tie off the subject in the vehicle. After putting my tank back on, John and I were able to bring the driver to the top of the water. The driver turned out to be a friend of mine who I had just talked with the week before. I could never have imagined that the following week I would be recovering his body from the depths of muddy water.

The third day of the dive was unbelievable. When we arrived, the water was calm, still, and as clear as the water off the coast of Florida. John and I went to the bottom where we would get on both sides of what was the bridge. We were on opposite sides of the concrete slab that was once a roadway. We would dive to the bottom using the centerline of the roadway and then go under the section of the bridge until it disappeared into the mud. All of the broken concrete and exposed iron was strewn everywhere. We went over the same section where we had been the day before because we had been in total darkness the previous day and could not believe we had actually been diving through what looked like a war zone. It had to be fate that kept us from getting hurt and allowing us to recover a body and all with only the touch of our hands and by using our instinct.

We went back to the location where the tractor-trailer truck had lost the load of sugar. There were hundreds of fish feeding on the sugar. The water was still and clear, and we could see things on the

bottom where you could not normally see. I found several old bottles, two stolen license plates and a gun still in its holster that had been

used in an armed robbery in Tangipahoa Parish. I would later learn that I had worked the robbery the year before.

This disaster would claim one life and cause injuries to two others plus millions of dollars in damages. Because this was the only road over the pass, it was a miracle that no one else was hurt or killed. I have talked to many workers who said they passed over the bridge everyday, but on this day something had happened to change their plans. If it had not been for this, they too might have been on the bridge on this tragic day. Many have even said that it was God’s plan for them not to be there, and we believe that was true.

As far as John and I were concerned, we dove hundreds of times after this accident, but this disaster by far was truly the height of our diving careers and will be etched in our minds forever.

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.