Wednesday, December 19, 2001

Despite recent flood death, concrete slab bridges will stay

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        METAMORA, Ind. — In this rural community in Franklin County, water gives and takes away.

        Early Monday, it took Sheila F. Pennington, a 33-year-old married mother of two who lived on a country road not far from town.

        “She must have left home at 6:10 a.m. to go to work and take her kids to the baby sitter,” said Lt. Jerry Shepherd, the district commander of the Indiana Conservation Office. “She never made it.”

        She died in a lonely place where a few homes lie scattered along narrow Yellow Bank Road.

        The morning was still dark as she drove there in her Ford Escort. After 48 hours of rain, the creek had come raging out of the hillsides and flooded over the little concrete slab that spans the banks.

        Ms. Pennington attempted to cross and was stranded on the slab, which has no guardrail. Witnesses said her front left tire ran off the slab and her car lodged there while she climbed out of the window. She dropped into the raging creek around her. Her body was found downstream. She was pronounced dead at the scene at 9:56 a.m. Monday.

        Meanwhile, her two children, Lexis M. Pennington, 3, and Kyle A. Pennington, 18 months, remained in the car. They were rescued, uninjured.

        Franklin County deputy sheriffs Dale Maxie and Mark Fritz arrived first but were turned back by the current. Other officers came and extended a 40-foot ladder from a county highway department dump truck to Ms. Pennington's car. Officers crossed the ladder, rescuing the stranded children and passing them to safety, Lt. Shepherd said.

        Authorities Tuesday said they didn't have the name of her husband, but that her children were staying with grandparents.

        Unfortunately, such a tragedy isn't uncommon in southeastern Indiana, which has a number of low, concrete slab bridges on lively creeks.

        “This is something we go through at least once a year,” Lt. Shepherd said. “We had a similar accident in Switzerland County” last year.

        In Metamora, a quaint tourist town that features crafts, antiques and flea market sales along a restored canal, Mildred Reuss was saddened at the news.

        “It's such a shame, and coming at the holidays, too,” she said. “I've got a grandson who's the age of one of her kids. So I feel for the family.”

        Mrs. Reuss, who lives in nearby Brookville but works at a shop in historic Metamora, said she becomes nervous when she drives across slab bridges — even in dry weather.

        “They're dangerous,” she said. “You have to get used to them. And the creeks can really get out of hand around here.”

        At the scene of the accident on Tuesday morning, the creek had already retreated. Its deepest part wouldn't come up to a 6-foot person's knees.

        David Lanning, Franklin County second district foreman, works on the slabs. This one is fairly new. The concrete is still a light color, although soiled by mud and brown leaves.

        “Slabs have been here 40, 50 years and it looks like they'll be here a while longer,” he said. “The county doesn't have the money to replace them with regular bridges.”

        He said a regular bridge over the creek would cost more than a million dollars — money the county lacks.

        “We have put up warning signs about the water,” he said. “We hope residents will take notice and be cautious when streams react this way. I don't know if she (Ms. Pennington) was in a hurry or what. The water was coming across the slab heavily.

        “If she hadn't gotten out of her car, she'd be alive today.”


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