Let’s talk about bridges and trou­bled wa­ter — an oil-slicked, burn­ing creek

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - John.kelly@wash­post.com. Twit­ter: @johnkelly

I grew up in Bethesda in the 1950s and 1960s and have many mem­o­ries of the Great Falls of the Po­tomac. One of them nags at me be­cause I’m not sure if it’s a false mem­ory or not. Were there once wooden foot­bridges go­ing out to the falls (be­fore the ones washed away in 1972 by Hur­ri­cane Agnes), and did one of them col­lapse while peo­ple were on it, re­sult­ing in many ca­su­al­ties? I can find no men­tion of such an ac­ci­dent any­where.

That said, I also clearly re­mem­ber the fire at the pe­tro­leum stor­age de­pot on River Road in Novem­ber 1958, which sent burn­ing oil down Lit­tle Falls Creek and threat­ened to im­mo­late an en­tire neigh­bor­hood. The fire in­ci­dent was a big deal at the time but gets only a cou­ple of no­tices in a Web search, so it is per­haps not sur­pris­ing that the Great Falls in­ci­dent (if it ac­tu­ally oc­curred) doesn’t turn up at all. Please ex­cuse the mor­bid drift of this in­quiry, which was trig­gered by all of the disas­ter cov­er­age lately. — Martin Mur­phy, Rich­mond Mem­ory is a tricky thing. Some­times it seems that we can fab­ri­cate an en­tire mem­ory out of half-re­mem­bered, or mis­re­mem­bered, scraps. An­swer Man is not sug­gest­ing that’s the case here, but he could find no ref­er­ence to a Great Falls bridge col­lapse. Nor could Karen Gray, a vol­un­teer his­to­rian at the Ch­e­sa­peake & Ohio Canal Na­tional His­tor­i­cal Park.

Per­haps the ques­tion-asker re­mem­bers a story from 1955, when ca­bles sup­port­ing a foot­bridge over the Oconaluftee River on the Chero­kee In­dian Reser­va­tion in North Carolina snapped, plung­ing 60 sight­seers onto the rocks be­low and killing two women.

Of course, there have been many in­juries and deaths over the years at Great Falls, mostly be­cause of drown­ings in the roil­ing waters. Any foot­bridge vi­o­lence has been done to the spans, not by them.

The first foot­bridge was built in 1880 by the own­ers of the nearby C&O Canal as a mon­ey­mak­ing scheme. Tourists could pay to tra­verse the bridge to get a closer look at the cataracts.

A flood de­stroyed the bridge the fol­low­ing year, the start of a com­mon cy­cle.

In 1972, de­bris-choked flood­wa­ter from Hur­ri­cane Agnes scoured away the bridges. It was 20 years be­fore they were re­built.

Five new foot­bridges — rang­ing from 31 to 100 feet long — were opened in 1992, al­low­ing visi­tors to again reach Olm­sted Island in the mid­dle of the river. These bridges were de­signed with handrails that could be re­moved, so tree limbs and other bits of flot­sam didn’t get stuck.

Win­ter flood­ing in 1996 dam­aged some of the bridges, but the 100-foot span to Olm­sted Island sur­vived.

As for the Great Fire of Lit­tle Falls Creek, An­swer Man found plenty of fuel, so to speak. The fire broke out on Nov. 23, 1958, a Sun­day evening.

“We all knew that if we ever got a call from But­ler Road, we were in for it,” Joseph A. Gi­ammat­teo, chief of the Glen Echo Fire Depart­ment, re­called later to a Washington Post re­porter.

That’s be­cause But­ler Road, off River Road be­tween Lit­tle Falls Park­way and to­day’s Cap­i­tal Cres­cent Trail, was home to three com­pa­nies that stored fuel oil and gaso­line.

The first call came in about 6:30 p.m. What had started as a small blaze — pos­si­bly from a cig­a­rette or match tossed on the fuel-soaked ground — had grown big enough to melt the steel sup­ports un­der a set of large stor­age tanks.

Five of the 20,000-gal­lon tanks buck­led, shear­ing off their feeder lines and send­ing burn­ing fuel oil into Lit­tle Falls Creek.

The creek be­came a river of flames 30 feet high. Smoke from the main fire rose to 3,500 feet and was re­ported by pi­lots land­ing at Na­tional Air­port.

More than 200 fire­fight­ers re­sponded to the blaze, some from as far away as Vir­ginia. Their ef­forts were ham­pered by an es­ti­mated 10,000 spec­ta­tors who gath­ered to watch the fire. When flame-sup­press­ing foam ran out, more was dis­patched from An­drews Air Force Base.

Seven fire­fight­ers were in­jured in the fire, which took four hours to knock down and con­sumed 225,000 gal­lons of oil owned by Colo­nial Fuel Oil. Spared was a 450,000-gal­lon tank. Robert W. Hook, a 24year-old fire­fighter, en­tered the flame area as col­leagues cov­ered him in foam from two stream­ing hoses. Hook was able to turn off a valve mid­way be­tween the pump house and the tank.

“The kid saved the day,” Gi­ammat­teo told The Post. “If that tank had ever gone up, we’d never have got­ten this fire out.”

FRANK JOHNSTON/THE WASHINGTON POST

Foot­bridges at Great Falls Park on the Po­tomac were roughed up by win­ter floods in 1996. The park had also taken dam­age decades ear­lier when Hur­ri­cane Agnes scoured the bridges away in 1972.

John Kelly's Washington

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