The Rev. Vernon McGrew said he knew there was trouble
when he learned the old suspension bridge at Heber Springs,
Ark., had collapsed Saturday.
What he did not know until he arrived was that his three
children were on the bridge and survived, while a 16-year-old
member of his Fort Smith congregation died.
McGrew, pastor of the Free Holiness Church, said a majority
of the 30 to 40 people on the bridge were part of his group.
"It is the most devastating thing that we have ever came
in contact with . . . totally horrifying. It's just unreal
the magnitude of this disaster," McGrew said.
Three children and two adults were killed when the iron
cables supporting the 77-year-old, single-lane wooden bridge
snapped, dumping the people who were on the bridge into
the Little Red River.
Among the dead were Jason Williams, 16, of Roland, and Catrina
Cotrell, early 20s, of Stratford. Eighteen were injured.
McGrew said his 12-year-old son was in the middle of the
bridge when he heard a noise - the cable snapping. He rushed
to the side of the bridge and plunged the 50 feet down,
McGrew said, jumping as far as he could jump away from the
"How he had the guts to do it, I don't know," McGrew said.
The bridge hit him on the heels as it came down, he said.
His 14-year-old daughter fell to the side in the mud and
his 16-year-old boy "just got off" of the bridge as it
snapped, he said. None of the three were injured.
Williams was a shy boy who was always willing to jump in
and help at the church, McGrew said. He played gospel piano
and had been involved in the church all of his life.
The bridge had been Heber Springs' top tourist attraction.
The community is tucked in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains.
"I thought the bridge was as solid as that mountain over
there," said Bob Burkeen, co-owner of the Swinging Bridge
Resort, pointing toward the peak of Sugarloaf Mountain overlooking
the area. The resort was named after the wood-and-iron structure
built in 1912.
The dead and injured were part of a Full Holiness church
group from several states meeting in nearby Prim, Ark. The
group of mostly young people had driven 30 miles to Heber
Springs to visit the swinging bridge during a break between
morning and evening services Saturday.
Witnesses said 30 to 40 people had the bridge swinging wildly
when the cables snapped and the bridge fell, flipping the
group 50 feet into the murky river water.
Gayla Carlton, 34, of Prim, was among the dead. Her father,
the Rev. Vernon Carlton, was the host pastor.
Others killed were Dana Waltman, 11, of Vancleve, Miss.;
and David Shane Warren, 13, of Mayfield, Ky.
Sunday services were canceled, although a small group from
more than the 300 people attending the annual meeting gathered
at the Prim Holiness Church to pray early Sunday.
Area residents said they considered the bridge safe. Some
said their only concern was that someone would slip from