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After 121 years, viaduct falls victim to tornado

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

By Lillian Thomas and Patrick Hernan

After standing 121 years and bearing some of the world's heaviest trains across a 301-foot-high gorge in McKean County, the center of the Kinzua Viaduct "just laid over on its side," in the face of a tornado Monday afternoon.

Engineers assess damage to the historic Kinzua Viaduct a day after a 1,400-foot section of the railroad bridge was ripped from its footings and dumped to the ground by an F1 Class tornado packing 100 mph winds. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

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Workers with a crew renovating what once was the world's highest and longest railroad span fled as the destruction roared toward them.

They tried to leave the work site in Kinzua Bridge State Park, but were forced to scramble from their vehicles for safety in ditches as trees crashed down around them and blocked their route.

Then came the booming sounds - apparently the death knell of the deteriorated viaduct collapsing at its center into twisted heaps on the valley below.

Decades ago, the span was proclaimed as the "Eighth Wonder" of the engineering world.

In February, work began on the $10 million renovation project; now, officials must decide whether to rebuild it or demolish what remains.

"As the crew was leaving the site, trees were falling down across the access road," said Steven Brode of W.M. Brode Co. of Newcomerstown, Ohio, the company working on the bridge. "That's when my superintendent said he thought at first he was hearing more trees falling; he heard this series of booms -- boom, boom, boom, boom. Later he realized that was probably the towers falling. He called me to tell me he thought part of the bridge had fallen."

The crew also contacted Barrett Clark, manager of Kinzua Bridge State Park, before evacuating. He arrived to find trees snapped off, a tangle of debris and a park worker trapped inside a collapsed shed.

After the worker was freed, Clark crawled through the debris to look at the Kinzua Viaduct.

A 1,400-foot section of the bridge had "just laid over on its side."

Six of the bridge's 20 support towers still stood on the park side of the gorge, three on the other side. The ones that remained standing had been recently renovated. The other 11 towers crashed onto the valley floor after bolts on their bases snapped. One tower had been twisted 180 degrees before it toppled.

In addition, thousands of trees were down, reminding Clark of the Agent Orange deforestation he saw three decades ago in Vietnam.

The National Weather Service reported yesterday that a tornado touched down between 3:15 and 3:30 p.m. in a wooded area about a mile west of the viaduct. It continued moving northeast for 3 1/2 miles, packing winds of 100 mph and cutting a one-third-mile-wide swath that took down thousands of trees, including black cherry, beech and maple.

It was classified as an F1 tornado, which has winds from 73 to 112 mph.

The engineer on the bridge renovation project, Brian Emberg, drove up from Harrisburg when he got the word, arriving around 8:30 p.m.

"It was very eerie. The whole valley was filled with fog, it was very dusky, and it almost looked like a battle scene, with the fog and this structure crumpled up," said Emberg, vice president of Herbert Rowland & Grubic, an engineering firm in Harrisburg.

Meteorologists from the National Weather Service were on the scene yesterday, along with engineers and officials from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which runs the park.

Officials will continue their assessment of damage today and start to consider whether the state will rebuild the bridge or demolish what's left.

Clark, who is from Juniata County but had come to the area every year since the 1950s before becoming park manager last year, said he can barely comprehend how the landscape changed in a matter of minutes.

"Looks like somebody took a lawn mower down through. The devastation is incredible."

Brode said that as he and his crew tried to salvage equipment yesterday, he thought about the months of work and the uncertain future.

"It's pretty tough," said Brode. "We have 25 guys out here that have been working this thing since February, going hard at it. We won't know where we go from here, and of course, it's a beautiful structure that we've put all that work into."

Patrick Hernan is a freelance writer.

Staff writer Lillian Thomas can be reached at lthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3566.

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