For Johnny Lang, he can still remember the night of Nov. 7, 1972, when the SS African Neptune slammed into the old Sidney Lanier Bridge — much smaller and more archaic than the version that stands today.
He was 17 years old at the time, and when he heard noise coming from the direction of the bridge, he hopped on his bike in the south end of Brunswick and rode to the area where emergency workers were frantically trying to save victims whose cars had plunged 80 feet into the Brunswick River.
The small passageway of the old lift-span bridge was dangerous for ships like the SS African Neptune at night. The accident investigation report cited multiple errors, but the result was the same. The African Neptune struck the south ramp of the bridge, knocking about 450 feet of the mile-long span into the river, causing 10 cars to fall into the river and killing 10 people.
“A lot of them were local people, and it was just a shock,” Lang said. “It was just such a tragedy for us here in Brunswick.”
When Lang rode over to the bridge that carries U.S. 17, he was stopped by the people and the cars piled up behind where the bridge had collapsed.
“I could just hear the bending metal and the yelling and the screaming,” Lang said. “It was so eerie.”
Others remember hearing about the accident over the radio.
“My husband and I were listening to the radio, and we heard it come across that there had been an accident,” said Lynn Warwick. “We tried to drive up to the bridge to see it, but we couldn’t get close with all of the people there trying to help.”
To happen in a small town like Brunswick, it was terrifying, she said.
“It really was just awful. There were several local people on the bridge,” Warwick said.
The next day, when the sun rose, debris and remains of the ship and bridge were fished out of the water.
“My dad and my grandfather rode around in their boat to see if they could help with the debris,” Lang said.
The 1956 bridge, declared a navigational hazard by the U.S. Coast Guard after it was hit a second time by a vessel in 1987, was closed when the new cable-stayed Sidney Lanier Bridge opened in April 2003. All but a small portion of the old structure, now a fishing pier, was razed.
The new bridge, the longest and tallest in Georgia, is much taller and features a wider opening for the passage of ships.