‘It was a horrible night.’ Fla. bridge collapse revives memories of Charlotte tragedy

‘It was a horrible night.’ Fla. bridge collapse revives memories of Charlotte tragedy
More than 100 people were hurt when a pedestrian bridge collapsed at what is now Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 20, 2000. (Credit: Observer file photo)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Joe Marusak/The Charlotte Observer) - Sitting in the control tower of what is now Charlotte Motor Speedway, H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler was as happy as could be.

Wheeler, then the speedway president, had predicted a Dale Earnhardt Jr. victory in the May 20, 2000, All-Star Race, and Dale Jr. had just crossed the finish line first.

Three minutes later, someone entered the tower with bad news: The pedestrian bridge at turn 4 had collapsed.

"Oh my God, we killed 50 people," Wheeler remembered thinking. "I knew anyone under the bridge, they were dead. Fortunately, no one was under the bridge."

H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, then-president of what is now Charlotte Motor Speedway, rushes to the scene of the May 20, 2000, pedestrian bridge collapse at the speedway.(Credit: Observer file photo)

The collapse came to Wheeler's mind again on Thursday when he saw reports that a pedestrian bridge under construction collapsed. Police on the scene said at least six people could be dead, but the exact number of victims remained unconfirmed, the Miami Herald reported.

The bridge collapsed just days after crews had dropped an elevated 950-ton span in place in a project that was intended to give Florida International University students a safe route across the busy roadway, the Miami Herald reported.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation has not used that bridge-building method, spokesman Steve Abbott said.

Fearing the worst 

Back in 2000, Wheeler left the speedway control tower feeling devastated. He saw the collapsed bridge and injured people lying about.

More than 100 people were hurt.

Wheeler remembered thinking: " 'The speedway is my responsibility, and I've got to stay calm and get the people who are alive to the hospital.' We ended up with 10 hospitals."

Now 79, Wheeler recalled seeing people with broken legs and arms – and being "terribly relieved" to learn no one died.

"But I also understood the people who were hurt would suffer for a long time, and that was not good," he said.

"Any time there's a tragedy like (the Miami bridge collapse), it wakes me up, because (May 20, 2000) was a horrible night."

The trouble started at about 11:15 p.m. that night. Fans were leaving the speedway after the race and walking to nearby parking lots, pouring onto the concrete walkway that stretched 25 feet over U.S. 29.

Suddenly, the walkway collapsed in a V-shape. Scores of screaming fans fell and slid to the highway.

Emergency workers block off the area surrounding the pedestrian bridge that collapsed outside what is now Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 20, 2000. (Credit: Jeff Siner | The Charlotte Observer file photo)

Weeks later, a consultant found the culprit: High levels of calcium chloride in grout had eaten away at the steel cables that gave the bridge's concrete beams their strength.

Dozens of the injured fans later sued the speedway and the bridge contractor, Tindall Corp. of Spartanburg. Most of those suits were settled out of court.

The most publicized of those cases concluded in 2003, when Mecklenburg County jurors awarded just over $4 million to Cindy and Marty Taylor, a Virginia couple who suffered head, back and leg injuries in the disaster.

The jurors did not hold the speedway responsible for the injuries, but concluded the track had breached a contract with the state transportation department regarding inspection and design of the bridge.

Looking back on the tragedy, Wheeler said he could offer this advice to those affected in Florida: "I would say to them: Pray and have faith, and if you do that, you'll never get over it, but you will and can get back to normal at some point."

Staff researcher Maria David and staff writers Steve Harrison and Bruce Henderson contributed.