WEBBERS FALLS, Okla. — 20 years ago, a barge crashed into the moorings of the I-40 bridge as it crossed the Arkansas River in Webbers Falls, Okla. The crash caused a portion of the interstate to collapse into the river killing 14 people.
Two decades later, families, friends and the community of Webbers Falls continued with their annual memorial service after a three-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Gail Shanahan and her friend Margaret Green were professional barrel racers. The two friends were among the victims in the crash and were on their way back home to Texas after competing at the Old Fort Days Rodeo.
“The competition went well and she won some cash,” said Gail’s aunt, Janette Barlow. “We had a conversation, she was excited and headed home. So hard for me to believe, when I got that phone call the night of the 26th, she’s gone.”
Barlow, like so many other family members, got the news and rushed to the scene for more information. When they arrived, despite their tragic losses, they found new family members in the form of the Webbers Falls community.
“They’re part of our community now and we want them to feel welcome, this is their community now,” said former Webbers Falls Mayor, Jewell Horne-Hall. “What I think about is the families, what they’re still going through because they’ll never forget this, we’ll never forget this.”
Along the banks of the Arkansas River, a memorial was made for those who lost their lives and the survivors of the accident. Their names are etched in stone and will never be forgotten by their families or the community of Webbers Falls.
Every year, families are invited back to honor the lives and memories of their loved ones with their Webbers Falls family.
“We come because of kin-folk, but we also come because of these people,” Barlow said. “It’s family, but it’s not family that’s split up, it’s family that’s united.”
The collapse also has ties close to home. James, Misty and Shae Johnson, a family of three from Lavaca, all lost their lives in the accident.
Barlow says the annual memorial service is a way to keep those who died alive in the hearts and memories of everyone impacted.
“They’re here still with us, so step out of the mourning and step into their life and live.”
Following the bridge collapse, it took 46 days for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation bridge engineers and contractors to replace the section that fell. Traffic returned to normal 64 days after the crash.
Despite the tragedy, officials say the accident highlighted a need for additional highway funding and bridge maintenance in Oklahoma. The state moved to seventh in the nation for good highway bridge conditions in 2021 after previously ranking 49th.
Since 2002, 70 pier protection barriers have been constructed along the Arkansas and Verdigris Rivers at major highway crossings, including I-40, US Highway 64 and 62, as well as State Highway 51.
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