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April 2, 2012

Thruway bridge collapsed 25 years ago into Schoharie Creek

I had just started my evening music shift at a Binghamton radio station Sunday night, April 5, 1987, with a network newscast at the top of the hour. That's when I first learned about the collapse of a bridge a few hours earlier on the New York Thruway, just west of Amsterdam, near Fort Hunter. That was pretty close to the old hometown, I thought at the time.

Nearly 400 feet of the road deck passing over a raging Schoharie Creek fell into the water, with several vehicles and a tractor-trailer plunging about 80 feet.

We certainly haven't had to deal with runoff from snowmelt in 2012, but the water was rough on our region 25 years ago. There was plenty of flood damage to go around, although nothing like the severity of what has been endured in upstate New York in 2006 and 2011. The Thruway bridge collapse in 1987 was the biggest incident in that round of flooding, no thanks to heavy rainfall and heavy snowmelt.

More than 50 rescuers rushed to the scene, but could not reach the vehicles because of the fast, high and muddy waters. Ten bodies were eventually recovered from the water.

"We can't do a thing," Dennis Jablonsky, a volunteer with the Fort Hunter Fire Department told The Associated Press. "There are trees coming down the creek two feet wide and 30-40 feet long, some longer. Refrigerators, a picnic table, benches, all kinds of debris. Whatever the water can grab on its way, it's taken."

By Monday, state Transportation Department workers were spreading out to inspect 300 bridges in a designated flood area, including Otsego, Delaware, Schoharie, Orange, Sullivan, Ulster and nine other counties. Those bridges, according to Transportation Commissioner Franklin White, were considered the weakest among the 4,300 bridges in those counties. Visual checks for erosion were made, and if any was found, more substantial inspections were to be conducted.

The company that designed the bridge over the Thruway in 1952 felt that erosion under the supports of the bridge was a likely cause of the collapse. Lionel Pavlov, head of Pavlov Engineering, said erosion was unusual.

"I have built more than 1,000 bridges and this is the first time such a thing has happened," he said. "A bridge that is in good service for so many years does not simply fall down." Pavlov felt an unusual water flow could have undermined the supports.

The state's probe into the collapse also focused on the Gilboa dam. A surge of water had been rushing through open gates of the dam into the Schoharie Creek at a rate of nearly 65,000 cubic feet per second the night before the collapse. It was suspected that this surge undermined the bridge supports 40 miles downstream.

At first traffic used alternate routes between Thruway exits 27 and 28. By June 29 a temporary detour was constructed, using a bridge on state Route 5S to cross Schoharie Creek, as well as some local farmers' land, to minimize local traffic flow through Amsterdam and Fonda. Farmers affected didn't like the idea at all, as it interfered with their crops, but had to deal with a state court injunction against their protests.

The family farm of Walter Dufel was affected. The Dufels said they'd obey the court order, although farmers, while watching the bulldozers destroy their crops of peas had some creative forms of protest -- such as dumping a load of manure upwind from the workers.

Interstate 88 was also suggested as another temporary detour by the state Transportation Department.

The Daily Star reported April 10 that some businesses had felt the effect of increased traffic.

"The Day and Night Restaurant at the Bainbridge exit ... has had double the business since part of the Thruway was closed."

"Most of the customers who are new say they're here because of the bridge," waitress Kelley Stewart said. "They say they've never been down this way before." The restaurant's sign was visible from the highway.

Other business, while advertised on exit signs but were set back in villages, didn't notice the difference.

"I could see if the bridge was out for a couple of months, you'll see an increase in customers over the long run," said Mary Greene, who then owned the Unadilla Diner. "But I have not seen an increase over the short run."

It was reported a few weeks later that U.S. Route 20 had seen a good increase in traffic.

A new bridge re-opened on the Thruway in May 1988.

This weekend: Oneonta's first automobile show was planned at the Armory.

City Historian Mark Simonson's column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at His website is His columns can be found at

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