Sunday, August 12, 2007

In 1984, Fort Worth driver watched as bridge fell in front of her car

By BUD KENNEDY - Star-Telegram staff writer -Sun, Aug. 12, 2007

Carol Solberg still remembers the day the bridge came down.

But it was in Fort Worth, not Minnesota.

And the falling concrete that 1984 day just missed the Arlington woman's station wagon -- and along with it, her pregnant sister.

Almost a quarter-century later, Solberg can recall every detail of the day she was driving a bakery delivery to Fort Worth when a bridge over Interstate 20 collapsed.

A water truck's trailer came loose and slammed into pillars supporting the Campus Drive bridge near what is now Tarrant County College.

The bridge fell behind the front seat of a Chevy sedan just ahead of Solberg's car. It flattened the back half of the car but missed the driver, Eldora Caffey, 25, of Fort Worth by scant inches. I couldn't reach her last week.

At the time, state highway officials called it the worst bridge collapse in modern Texas history. Since then, eight motorists were killed in the 2001 collapse of the causeway to South Padre Island, and one toddler died in 2002 when a bridge fell onto Interstate 45.

Solberg, now 55 and retired as an owner of Austin Bakery in Arlington, was delivering cakes to a Target store on South Hulen Street on July 11, 1984.

Riding with her was her sister, Patty Conti, who was three months pregnant.

"It didn't come down with a 'Bam!'" Solberg said. "It unrolled, like a ribbon. It just rolled down."

"I remember being scared," she said. Not about the bridge, but "about all the people behind me and whether they could stop."

All she could see ahead was a chunk of bridge, in pieces only a foot above the Interstate 20 pavement. Then she figured out why the bridge didn't drop that final foot.

Somebody shouted: "There's a car under there!"

Rescuers freed Caffey from her half-crushed car and reported that she was only slightly hurt.

"I remember thinking, 'God, I'm really going to die,'" Caffey told reporters.

The runaway trailer came from a water truck owned by a Dallas company and struck the bridge at just the right spot to knock a pier loose, engineers said back then. In 2002, a similar crash caused the fatal collapse of the Texas 14 bridge over Interstate 45.

"One piece fell, then another, then another," Solberg remembered this week, describing the collapse in almost exactly the same words she used in 1984 interviews. The bridge fell from north to south, burying the westbound freeway lanes.

No cars were on the bridge, and no Campus Drive motorists were quoted in the story. As it does today, the bridge linked the college and car dealerships along the north access road of Southeast Loop 820 with shops along the south access road. The bridge wasn't busy until 1987, when a wholesale club went up nearby. The overpass was only 15 years old and was later redesigned and rebuilt as part of freeway widening.

"It doesn't bother me to go through there anymore," Solberg said. "But I still think about it."

The collapse "definitely wasn't anywhere near as bad as in Minneapolis," Solberg said. "Nobody was up on top."

A moment sooner, she said, and "we would have been trapped underneath. There was just a tiny gap between us and that bridge."

Six months later, Patty Conti gave birth to a daughter.

Anna, 22, now has a finance degree from Texas Christian University.

And a story to tell for years to come.

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