Hank Staley’s parents thought he was back in his room at their home in Brunswick, maybe even studying on this Tuesday night in November.
But never mind that. They were no doubt glued to the tube, waiting for Walter Cronkite to give them the latest results on the big election that day. Spoiler alert, Mr. and Mrs. Staley: Nixon in a landslide.
But the Staleys were due a phone call that night that would hit home like no presidential election ever could. The bad news? Your teenage son needs another set of wheels. The good news? Hank is alive.
Ten souls were not so fortunate on the night a stretch of the old Sidney Lanier Bridge collapsed into the Brunswick River 47 years ago. The deadly disaster made national news and shook a small Georgia community to its core. For Hank, it was the night he and two teenage buddies sprinted in a race for their lives.
“You think you’re invincible at that age anyway,” Hank told me last week.
Hank was a senior at Brunswick High at the time. His parents’ assumptions that he was safe at home notwithstanding, he and his buddy Duke Smith were actually cruising around Jekyll Island in his ‘66 Chevelle. It was Nov. 7, 1972.
“We were basically out joyriding,” said Hank, now an Athens resident. “We were just riding around Jekyll, doing what seniors in high school do.”
The 11,000-ton freighter S.S. African Neptune was likely just departing the Port of Brunswick about the time Hank and Duke decided to head home. Hank nearly made it across the bridge before the gate went down to signal the draw spans were rising to let the African Neptune pass with a full load of naval stores.
They were right up at the front of the drawbridge, which became the first bridge ever to span the Brunswick River when it was completed in 1956. “The barriers were only one section removed from the draw span,” Hank said. “We were like the third car back from the barrier.”
By now, those at the helm of the African Neptune knew something was going wrong. The ship was drifting off course. They dropped anchor, but the ship plunged onward.
Drawbridges were a common distraction in the Golden Isles back then. No big deal, even for impatient teenagers in a hurry. He never got out of his car to pass the time. “It was a pretty common to have to stop and wait for a boat to pass if you drove around the county much,” Hank said. “It happened to me just about every day.”
He probably would have stayed in his car, shooting the breeze with Duke. But then he noticed that Charlie Wells was in the car ahead of him. Charlie had just acquired a new-to-him car — a Gran Torino, if Hank’s memory serves.
“Charlie was a year older than me, but we knew him pretty well,” he said. “Charlie was standing outside on the rail. We got out to go talk to him.”
Good thing. It was a short conversation. “We had been there about 30 seconds when Charlie said, ‘That boat’s going hit the bridge!’ And he takes off running.
“It took a second or two for it to register with Duke and I. And we started to follow him.”
A mix of panic and frozen terror overcame those trapped on the bridge. Charlie had the presence of mind to warn folks who remained in their vehicles of the impending doom. Hank thinks he and Duke tried to warn some folks too. “But Charlie was the real hero,” Hank conceded. All three boys wore their hair long, a style of the times but perhaps still out of place in 1970s south Georgia.
“We were all long-haired kids at the time,” Hank said. “We tried to tell folks, but they were rolling up their windows and locking their doors. I guess they thought we were drug-crazed kids.”
(By the way, centenarian and local history buff Bill Brown has told me this same story about on at least two occasions. Until talking with Hank, I had never heard or read elsewhere about the long-haired kids whose warnings fell on deaf ears. But if Mr. Bill said it, I knew it must be true.)
Hank had scarce little time in the turmoil of the moment to realize he was in a race for his life with the oncoming African Neptune. “We were halfway down the bridge before we realized why we were running,” he said.
The African Neptune smashed into the bride about 350 feet south of the draw span, taking out the three closest 150-foot-long bridge spans with it. Hank, Duke and Charlie made it to the fourth span just in time.
“When the boat hit, the bridge just sunk beneath your feet, like the pavement had sunk in,” he said. “It was an odd feeling.”
Among the 10 who perished that night on the bridge: four family members from Waycross, a 19-year-old Brunswick woman, a doctor from Kentucky and a 28-year-old Citrus, Fla., man passing through on his honeymoon.
Eleven more folks were injured; many more were plucked from the waters by crew members of the African Neptune and local shrimpers who sprang into action.
Hank’s Chevelle was among about a dozen vehicle that went into the water. All he could think about by then was reaching out to mom and dad. “We all needed to call out parents,” he said. “Of course, you didn’t have cellphones in those days.”
The three teens found themselves wandering around at the foot of the bridge, along with a young black man from out of town whose girlfriend was still unaccounted for. A state trooper reached out to the four. “This state patrolman put us and the black guy in his patrol car and gave us a ride to a convenience store on Jekyll.”
Moments later, Mr. and Mrs. Staley were surprised to receive a call from their son. “My parents didn’t even know I wasn’t home,” he said. “They were shocked when I called and told them what happened.”
They fished his car out of the river two days later. “It was crushed,” he said.
Hank never saw the black guy after that night. He can only hope his girlfriend turned up safe. Charlie and Duke have since passed on, he said.
Hank grew up to become a motel consultant. He wears a suit and tie to work. He has no hair. Our conversation was almost over before it dawned on either of us that I had reached out to him on Nov. 7, the anniversary of the African Neptune tragedy.
“I didn’t think about it at the time, but it caught my attention later,” Hank said. “It was like, thank God you’re alive. When something like that happens, it makes you think.”