19 - Where the Birds Gather ... (*)

[*] On June 16, 1967, Mrs. Gladys Fusaro of Huntington, New York, received a phone call from a woman claiming to be Princess Moon Owl. The princess gave her this statement to pass on to me: “The pebbles on the beach are washed under the bridge where the birds gather and where rays of light show through.“


Thirteen months to the day (November 15, 1966 - December 15, 1967) the Year of the Garuda came to an end. Like some evil specter of death, Mothman and the UFOs had focused national attention on quiet little Point Pleasant and lured scores of reporters and investigators like myself to the Ohio River valley. When the Silver Bridge died of old age many of these same reporters returned once again to the village to revisit old friends and to share the pain of that tragic Christmas. Wherever you were, you watched the agonized aftermath on national television and read about Point Pleasant on the front pages of your local newspapers.

The Silver Bridge was constructed in 1928 and was an engineering marvel in its day. It became a main artery from West Virginia to Ohio, but had not been designed for the heavy traffic of the 1960s. Huge trucks lumbered across it continuously. People on both sides of the river crossed it daily to shop, go to work, visit friends. The next nearest bridge was almost fifty miles upriver.

On the Ohio side of the river, at the little cluster of shops and dwellings called Kanauga, the stoplight at the mouth of the bridge was malfunctioning that afternoon. It was stuck on green and the rush-hour traffic along Route 7 was creeping past in confusion. Traffic was backing up in both directions and at 5 P.M. the bridge was laden with slow-moving lines of cars and trucks in both directions. The light on the Point Pleasant side had always been recalcitrant, remaining red for so long that many regular bridge users had learned to ignore it. Running the light -was a common practice.

Frank Wamsley, a twenty-eight-year-old truck driver, was on his way home to Point Pleasant, riding in a gravel, truck with a friend. They found the traffic backed up on the Ohio side. It was to be a black day for the Wamsley family.

On the West Virginia side, Frank’s cousin Barbara and her husband, Paul Hayman, were starting across the bridge in their 1955 Pontiac. And his uncle, Marvin Wamsley, was also on the bridge with two friends in a 1956 Ford convertible.

Bill Needham, twenty-seven, of Ashboro, North Carolina, was muttering under his breath because he had been caught in the 5 o’clock rush hour. He inched his loaded tractor-trailer forward in a low gear.


His partner, R.E. Towe, sat beside him in patient silence.

“The old bridge is sure bouncing around today,” Howard Boggs, twenty-four, commented to his wife, Marjorie, nineteen.

She was holding their eighteen-month old daughter, Christie. There were several small children On the bridge, riding with their Christmas-shopping mothers.

“The bridge was shaking, but then it always shook,” William Edmondson, thirty-eight, of King, North Carolina, said later.

His partner, Harold Cundiff, was sound asleep in their tractor-trailer.

The traffic jam worsened. The streams of cars and trucks ground to a halt. The old bridge shuddered and squirmed under the weight.

Frank Wamsley spotted his cousin Barbara and her husband and waved to them. Just ahead, he saw Marvin and his two friends. Suddenly the whole bridge convulsed.

The time was 5:04 P.M.

Steel screamed. The seven-hundred-foot suspension bridge twisted and the main span split from its moorings at either end. Electric cables strung across the bridge snapped in a blaze of sparks. Fifty vehicles crashed into the black waters of the Ohio, tons of steel smashing down on top of them.

“It sounded like someone moving furniture upstairs, and then the lights went out,” State Trooper R. E. O’Dell said.

He was in an insurance office a block from the bridge.

“When the lights went out, I guess they really just flickered for a minute, I knew something was wrong. I thought maybe it was a wreck, so I ran outside.“

Mrs. Mary Hyre was in a drugstore on the Main Street, waiting for the traffic to ease so she could cross the bridge and pick up the daily notes from the Gallipolis Hospital.

“There was a sound like a jet plane or a plane going through the sound barrier,“ she said afterward. “A rumbling roar that hurt your eardrums. Then the lights flickered. My first thought was that something had blown up. I thought, ‘My God, John was right! Something is exploding!” I ran outside and someone yelled, The bridge went down!’“

A Christmas tree salesman in Kanauga, H.L. Whobrey, dropped the tree he was holding.

“The bridge just keeled over, starting slowly on the Ohio side, then following like a deck of cards to the West Virginia side. It was fantastic. There was a big flash and a puff of smoke when the last of the bridge caved in, I guess the power line snapped.


“I saw three or four people swimming around in the water screaming. I couldn’t do anything. I just stood there and watched. Then I saw a City Ice and Fuel boat come and pick them up.“

Frank Wamsley saw the bridge in front of him tilt sharply and suddenly there was water all around him.

“I went all the way to the bottom with the truck. For a minute I didn’t think I was going to get out. Finally I got out and came to the surface and I caught hold of something and held on and was soon picked up.”

When a boat pulled alongside he found he could not move his legs and had to be helped aboard. His back was fractured.

Howard Boggs found himself on the bottom of the river, outside his car.

“I don’t know how I got out of the car, or how I got to the surface. But all at once I was on top and caught hold of something, like a big cotton ball.“

His wife and child didn’t make it.

Bill Needham’s truck also sank to the bottom but he somehow managed to force a window and reach the surface.

“You could see and hear people screaming for help,” Mary Hyre described the scene. “I saw a tractor-trailer that floated a little before it sank, and a car and merchandise floating on the water. People on the West Virginia side of the river were so upset they could hardly realize what was going on.

“You could hear people saying, ‘This can’t be true ... you read about things like this in the papers, but it can’t be happening here ...’“

Like Howard Boggs, William Edmundson suddenly found himself on the surface of the water, clinging to a truck seat. He had no idea how he’d escaped from his vehicle. His partner didn’t surface.

“When I got there I could see this truck floating in the water,” Trooper O’Dell explained. “There was a fellow hanging on the side of it. Then they sank. I don’t know if he got out.“

People came running from all directions, silent,- ashen-faced, knowing their friends and relatives could be out there in the icy water now covered with debris and soggy, gaily wrapped Christmas packages. Boats of all kinds crisscrossed the river picking up survivors.

On both sides of the river people who had been waiting in the lines to drive over the bridge were crying. Some had to be treated for shock.

Night was closing in quickly. Boats with searchlights turned their beams onto the bridge and the surrounding water. A horrible silence fell over Point Pleasant. Sheriff Johnson’s tall, spare figure stood on the water’s edge.

“Put out a general call for rescue units,” he told a deputy softly. “And get everyone here. Block all the roads. Don’t let anyone but rescue units into town.“

Mary Hyre pulled her coat around her pudgy frame and walked slowly to her office, tears running down her face, her years of experience overriding her emotions. She pushed open the door and walked to her phones. They were dead.


She switched on the Teletype machine and started to peck away with two fingers.

“At 5,:04 P.M. this afternoon ...“

Sirens wailed outside and the crowds grew. A girl was screaming hysterically in front of the office.

“I almost got killed ... I could have been on there ... all those people dead... I could have been killed.“

Two miles north of the bridge, Mrs. Jackie Lilly was in a grocery store waiting for her teen-aged children. They were planning to go bowling in the alleys on the other side of the river that night. Her husband, Jim, was away, working on his boat.

At 5:20 Gary and Johnny Lilly rushed breathlessly into the store.

“The bridge just fell in the river,” Johnny declared.

“That’s not very funny,” his mother replied.

“It’s true. The old bridge just collapsed,” Gary said grimly. “And it was full of cars.“

Johnny, who was married, drove them home to their little house on Camp Conley Road. Mrs. Lilly headed for a phone. It was dead. As Johnny drove off, dashing back to” Point Pleasant to be with his wife, Gary, eighteen, turned on the television set and searched for a news program.

A few minutes later Gary glanced out of the picture window in the living room and gasped.

“There’s something out there!” he exclaimed.

Mrs. Lilly looked out and saw a flashing red light disappearing over the trees.

“Do you think those things are back?” Gary asked.

“It was probably an airplane,” she answered.

But she turned off the lights in the living room so they could see .better into the darkness outside.

A few minutes later a second light appeared, moving in the same direction as the first. It was one of those glaringly bright prismatic lights so familiar to the residents of Camp Conley -Road.


They went outside to watch it.

“It wasn’t an airplane,” Mrs. Lilly assured me later. “It was one of those things, bobbing up and down like they do. There wasn’t any sound.“

For the next hour, Mrs. Lilly, Gary, and daughter Linda divided their attention between the TV set and the eerie aerial activity outside.

“We counted twelve of them,” Mrs. Lilly reported. “Most of them were just above the treetops. They seemed to be coming down from up around the TNT area and moved south toward the town.“

The hundreds of people milling around the streets of Point Pleasant did not see anything in the skies that night, however. Perhaps the objects followed their old route, dipping into the ravine behind North Park and cutting eastward to the hills.

“I was getting scared,” Mrs. Lilly recalled. “We’d never seen so many of these things in one night. I kept trying the phone, wanting to get somebody to drive out and pick us up and take us out of there.“

Finally around 9 P.M. she got a dial tone and was able to place a call to a neighbor who drove over, picked them up, and took them to the home of Mrs. Lilly’s mother in Point Pleasant.

A few months later James Lilly moved his family away from Camp Conley Road.

Around 2 A.M. I finally got a line through to Point Pleasant and was very much relieved when Mary Hyre picked up her phone. She spoke very slowly, obviously exhausted.

“It’s the most terrible thing I’ve ever seen,” she told me. “But I was kind of prepared for it. You know those dreams I had ... well, it was exactly like that. The packages floating in the water. The people crying for help. Those dreams came true.“

“Is everyone all right?” I asked anxiously. “The McDaniels, Connie, the others.“

“I think so. It’ll be awhile before we know who was on the bridge. There could have been as many as one hundred people. Some of them were rescued. But an awful lot of them are trapped under all that metal.“

After a month of brutally hard work, divers and rescue teams recovered thirty-eight bodies. Several other people in Ohio and West Virginia were never heard from again and it was assumed they also went down with the bridge.


A number of UFO witnesses were among the dead.

“I talked to one woman who lives right by the bridge,” Mary continued. “She says that two days ago she saw two men climbing the bridge.“

“Climbing on it?“

“Yes. They weren’t walking across. They were climbing around the sides of it”

“Was she able to describe them?“

“They were wearing checkered coats and black trousers. She couldn’t see their faces too well because they were so far away. But she did notice their shoes. They weren’t wearing boots, just ordinary shoes. She thought that was odd because of me weather we’d been having.“

“You’d better have the police talk with her, Mary,” I said.

“I will. There’s just so much to do. People are coming from all over. And as soon as my phone was working again I started getting calls from newspapers and radio stations all over the country."

“You’d better try to get some sleep.“

“I know, but I just can’t leave the office now. Ambulances and rescue trucks are coming in from all over. They’ll be working all night. I’ve got to be there.“

Later the bridge was lifted from the water piece by piece and reconstructed in a field near Henderson. Engineers finally determined the collapse was due to metal fatigue and structural failure.

“John,” Mary began hesitantly, “do you think this had anything to do with UFOs and the ‘Bird’?“

“There’s no answer to that, Mary. Maybe there were people on the bridge that could have told us something. I knew the condition of the bridge. And I’d had warnings about something terrible that was going to happen. If I could have put things together sooner, maybe we could have saved all those lives.“

“It’s not your fault. Some things are just meant to be. You can’t change the future ... even when you know what is going to happen.“

I heard the sound of a woman weeping in the background.

“A woman just came in. Her husband is missing,” Mary whispered.

After we hung up I sat for a long time by my big glass windows, looking out over the lights of Manhattan Island. For one long year my life had been intertwined with the lives of the people of Point Pleasant. I had been led into relationships and events that seemed to follow a structured pattern beyond my control. Even beyond my understanding.


I had stood on those distant hills and watched those wretched bouncing lights mock me. In the months ahead there would be many changes in the lives of those who had been touched by the Garuda. Roger and Linda Scarberry would divorce, as would Woodrow Derenberger who, in what has become a tradition among contactees, would remarry ... this time to a beautiful young woman who was also a contactee. They would slip away to obscurity in another state. Others would eventually suffer nervous breakdowns and undergo long periods of hospitalization.


A few would even commit suicide.

Death would claim too many of the participants in the dramas of 1967. Mrs. Mary Hyre passed away in 1970. Ivan T. Sanderson left us in 1973. Dr. Edward U. Condon, Fred Freed, and many others would be gone long before the tenth anniversary of the appearance of the winged thing in front of the old power plant. Some of the people who viewed the tall, hairy red-eyed monsters died within six months.


Even Mr. Apol staged an odd departure, acting out a charade with the Men in Black that left him broken in spirit. He wasted away like a human suffering from a stroke until there was nothing left but his Cheshire smile.

Out there in the night those puzzling spheres of light still ply their ancient routes in the Mississippi and Ohio valleys. A new generation of young people stand on the hilltops, expectantly scanning the skies. Their elders, jaded by nearly thirty years of signs and wonders, no longer scoff. Believers in extraterrestrial visitants and saviors from outer space are now welcomed on the most respectable television shows to broadcast their propaganda for that imaginary world with its superior technology and its marvelously stupid representatives who adopt the names of ancient gods and moan they are prisoners of time.

People ask me still if I know what the future holds. But, just as I used Socratic irony in my investigations, I can only admit like Socrates that the more I learn the less I know. My glimpses of the future were all secondhand and were frequently garbled by accident or design.

All of the generations before ours were infested with false prophets, workers of wonders, and signs in the sky. In a sense, each generation is truly the Last Generation from their microscopic viewpoint. But our modern electronic communications and sophisticated press agentry have given present-day prophets tools the ancients lacked. Ideas, no matter how bizarre or fallacious, can span the world in a flash.


And there are always people ready to rally to any banner, no matter how absurd. In recent years we have seen a worldwide revival of interest in psychic phenomena and the supernatural. Stern no-nonsense scientists now drag their beards to Loch Ness to search for the -monster, while others comb the woods of the Northwest seeking the Sasquatch, and still others soberly discuss robots from outer space with Mississippi fishermen.


But gradually all these men are being drawn closer and closer to ontology; to an examination of the question that lies beyond the simplistic,

“Can these things be?”

The real question is,

“Why are there these things?“

Like Mr. Apol and his merry crew of mischief-makers, we do not know who we are or what we are doing here. But we are slowly learning. Once we begin looking beyond the mere manifestations we will finally glimpse the real truth. Belief has always been the enemy of truth; yet, ironically, if our minds are supple enough, belief can sometimes open the door.

After spending a lifetime in Egyptian tombs, among the crumbling temples of India and the lamaseries of the Himalayas, endless nights in cemeteries, gravel pits, and hilltops everywhere, I have seen much and my childish sense of wonder remains unshaken.


But Charles Fort’s question always haunts me:

“If there is a universal mind, must it be sane?"

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