Written by Randy Yohe.
For her husband’s company Christmas party that chilly December night, young bride Jackie Ward had a new green dress to surprise him. But Earl Ward never got to see that pretty green dress.
The budding photographer normally worked in WSAZ’s commercial film department. Every once in a while, however, Ward was called upon to help with the news. Just after 5 p.m. on December 15, 1967, news director Boz Johnson requested that Earl head to the spot where Point Pleasant and Gallipolis joined across the Ohio River. The young man and his film camera needed to quickly travel there because a bulletin alert had proclaimed that the Silver Bridge, at rush hour and crowded with cars, had just collapsed into the water.
Fifty years later, the West Virginia Broadcasting Hall of famer remembers that long dark night and the stark light of the next day like it was yesterday. Ward and WSAZ evening news anchor/reporter Jim Mitchell went up the Ohio Side from Huntington to the disaster scene.
Setting up his film camera on a tripod, the steady photog said at first it was hard to see anything. “You could make out a lot of cars in the water; and as more and more first responders arrived, their lights illuminated a major, major disaster.” Ward remembered. Ward kept rolling off reels of film, images that were shuttled back to the WSAZ Newsroom. Mitchell left to anchor the 11 o’clock news, leaving the young pro alone at the scene. Ward kept his camera rolling as family members, friends, people from surrounding communities, all of them in shock and anguish, converged on the mass of mangled metal and watery wreckage.
“It was chaos and turmoil, and many cries in the night,” Ward recalled. “I had to be a professional and do my job the best I could with so many emotions swelling up inside me, emotions that hit me hard days later, and for many days after that.” Earl stayed on the scene until well after midnight and was back the next morning.
That next morning, Ward got in a small Piper Cub plane and took off from Huntington to get aerial footage of the disaster scene. “That pilot was excellent,” Ward said, “Remember, I had an old Bell and Howell hand cranking film camera, and everything needed to be steady to get it all shot right.” Ward says they took three passes over the bridge; and in the harsh light of day, he could see the totality of the destruction.
“Everything was down. The concrete from both the 1,460-foot bridge ends were down in the water. And in the middle, there was nothing.” Ward said, adding, “The recovery effort was massive and still going on both in the water and on the shore, and it went on for at least another week.” Holding as steady as he could, high above the tragic scene, Ward cranked off a few rolls of the then-standard black and white film. On the last pass, he shot a 100-foot roll of something new—his own color film.
Without landing, the plane, along with the photog and his film, headed for the NBC affiliate in Pittsburgh; then it was scheduled to go on to NBC News Headquarters in New York City. “There was no internet-sending back then; you had to ship film from one place to another,” Ward said. But news director Boz Johnson told Ward New York was out. He was ordered to let the Pittsburgh station ship some of the footage to New York. Ward and his film needed to quickly get back to Huntington where a half-hour special was being prepared on the Silver Bridge Disaster.
Earl Ward eventually moved into the news department full time. Then a 24-year-old, now 74 and retired after 42 years in television, WSAZ’s longtime chief photographer opines that the similarities and differences between covering major, life-taking disasters then and now come down to immediacy. “The news outlets cover the basic story pretty much the same; but now, it’s live, it’s streamed, it’s analyzed, and it’s so much faster.”
Earl doesn’t remember if he ever saw Jackie’s new green Christmas party dress. He was just glad to see Jackie.