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Old photos of towboat hitting bridge became an internet sensation, continued

The dramatic pictures of Cahaba have been posted on a multitude of websites. In fact, there are so many sites about Cahaba that one site was created just to keep track of them all. For a history of Cahaba sites, visit this site.

Capt. Jim Jarrell, marine traffic manager for Madison Coal, said the company rebuilt Cahaba and renamed it Capt. Ed Harris. It now operates on the Kanawha River from Point Pleasant to Boomer, W.Va., handling barges of coal, chemicals, cement, stone and other commodities.

The accident at Rooster Bridge wasn’t forgotten by any means. Photos of the mishap hang in the offices of Madison Coal and Warrior & Gulf. They have been the occasional topic of discussion on the Internet. But for the most part, they have been hidden from public view, and the accident was all but forgotten, except in the memories of a few — until February, that is, when the photos began appearing all over the Internet.

It’s hard to say for sure who first put the photos on the Internet. One website that has tracked where the photos have appeared lists 17 sites where they can be found. It lists another four sites that had the photos online but crashed because so many people clicked in to get a peek at them.

Who can blame people for being interested?

Tom Winkle of De Kalb, Ill., an engineer on M/V Joy Anne Keller that runs the lower Mississippi River, had never seen such a thing in his 25 years working on the water. He said the photos have been making the rounds at the university in his hometown, and have been especially popular among mariners in the Gulf of Mexico. He emailed the photos to friends as far away as Australia and Europe.

“This has really gone far and wide,” he said.

And it’s not just mariners. Matthew Guerreiro is a hedge fund manager who lives in New York City. He is a recreational sailor and enjoys following the maritime industry, but has never worked on a boat.

Yet, he was so intrigued by the photos when a friend told him about them that he enlarged one of the shots so he could read the name of the company on the towboat. He was captivated by the tale that unfolded before his eyes.

“It was almost like you were watching a train wreck about to happen as you scrolled down the (Internet) page,” Guerreiro said. “It was a relief to see it come out all right on the other side of the bridge.”

The appearance of the photos after all these years has also prompted people to pick up the phone in search of more information. Bob Warren, manager of administrative services for Warrior & Gulf, said dozens of people have called seeking more information, including some mariners who simply want to reminisce.

“We have been inundated with calls about those photos,” Warren said. “I’ve been told that Ripley’s Believe It or Not is interested in them.”

Jarrell said a couple of dozen people — including lawyers and even a West Virginia state legislator — have called Madison Coal wanting more information. The Democrat-Reporter has also heard from people who want to hear about the first newspaper account.

Rob Bernhard, who lives outside of Chicago and works for a rail freight company, began tracking which Internet sites ran the photos after he got emails about the shots from three friends. He also put the photos on his own website.

Bernhard said his site got an estimated 13,000 different visitors the first week of March alone. “There’s obviously a lot of demand for these images,” he said.

Bernhard also took it upon himself to determine where the photos first appeared on the Internet. The answer, he said, may lie with Ray Fagan of Pascagoula, Miss. Fagan said he first saw the photos about three years ago when they were being emailed around Gulf Coast shipyards. He converted the photos so he could post them on the Internet and placed them on his personal website where friends could see them.

Fagan said the photos sat there for two years with hardly any visits, and he forgot about them. But when he went back on his Web page in February to check it out, he saw it was receiving more visits. Then he transferred the photos to a different website that was easier to edit, and the visitors began coming. And coming and coming.

In two days alone, more than 26,000 visitors came to Fagan’s site to see the photos. Fagan’s records show that they came from at least 70 different countries, including Europe, Australia and the Far East. They came from South America, the Middle East and places such as Kyrgyzstan, Slovenia, Nicaragua, Cambodia, Saudi Arabia and Zambia.

The sheer number of visitors overloaded Fagan’s website, and the company that hosted his Internet pages billed him $2,721, he said. Fagan said he pulled down the website and has tried to raise money to pay the bill. But, he added, the story was compelling enough to motivate him to visit the accident site and make contact with eyewitnesses.

“The stories vary, probably because of the passage of time, but it’s still an amazing incident and an incredible series of pictures,” Fagan said.

Still, that doesn’t fully explain how photos from so long ago have popped up on so many Internet sites. And that has Randy Leo, a technical illustrator from Austin, Texas, scratching his head. Leo, who has also put the photos on his personal Internet site, is intrigued by the interest they have generated.

“The question in my mind is why has it surfaced 20-something years later and generated such an interest?” he said. “I don’t have an answer for that. I’d like to know.”

This article has been posted in its entirety from the June/July 2002 issue.
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