From 1990: Survivor recalls night that ship hit bridge in Brunswick in 1972

Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter examines the damage left behind at Sidney Lanier Bridge in 1972 after a deadly collision by an 11,000-ton cargo ship at the Brunswick waterway. (AJC file photo)

Credit: AJC File

Credit: AJC File

Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter examines the damage left behind at Sidney Lanier Bridge in 1972 after a deadly collision by an 11,000-ton cargo ship at the Brunswick waterway. (AJC file photo)

Originally published April 2, 1990 in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

BRUNSWICK — It was Nov. 7, 1972, and Al Donal was a happy man.

He had a new bride and a new car, and tragedy was the last thing on his mind as he stood on the Sidney Lanier Bridge, watching the approaching ship.

As he snapped photos of the ship, “a long-haired kid came running up screaming something, I didn’t know what. . . . I was talking to my wife about it when we felt the bridge shudder,” Donal recalls.

He found out too late that the youth was trying to tell people the ship was going to hit the bridge.

Passing through Glynn County recently on his way back home to Flourtown, Pa., Mr. Donal paused to talk about that awful night when the steamship African Neptune slammed into the Sidney Lanier Bridge, killing 10 people and injuring 11.

Mr. Donal and his wife, Mary Ann, were returning home from a honeymoon trip to Florida when they stopped on the bridge to wait for the ship.

“We had zigzagged all around Interstate 95 and finally ended up on [U.S.] Highway 17. The bridge was up, so I decided to get out and take a few pictures,” he said.

While he and his wife tried to figure out what that “hippy-looking kid” was hollering about, the African Neptune crashed into the bridge, taking down three spans and sending 10 cars into the murky waters of the Brunswick River.

“The next thing I knew, I felt this impact, there was a grinding sound and the bridge shuddered. Then I woke up in the water with concrete slabs and debris coming down all around me.”

Mr. Donal said his wife was still in the car when the bridge collapsed and when he regained consciousness in the water, he assumed she was dead.

“The car had power windows, so of course they wouldn’t work once the car was in the water. . . . Thank God, one of the windows was down. When the water came rushing in, my wife was able to get out of the car,” he said.

Mr. Donal found himself clinging to a partially submerged truck. A short distance away, he saw a dark-haired woman treading water and he motioned for her to swim over so she could hang onto the truck with him. But she didn’t budge. “She either didn’t see me or was still in shock.”

It never occurred to Mr. Donal that woman was his wife. Mrs. Donal had been wearing a blonde wig in the car and “that woman had dark hair, so I just never made the connection,” he said. So the dark-haired woman kept treading water and Donal held onto the truck.

Soon, the two were picked up by separate rescuers and transported to the Glynn-Brunswick Memorial Hospital.

“When the boat picked me up, they asked if anyone was with me and I said no, I had lost my wife. I just knew she was dead,” he said. “When I got to the hospital, they asked me the same thing, and I told the nurse my wife was dead and she told me to never say that, but I was convinced I’d never see Mary Ann again.”

After a series of X-rays to determine the extent of his injuries, Mr. Donal w as lying on a gurney when another nurse walked over to check his name tag.

“When she saw my name, she just yelled, “That’s your wife over there!”

Fortunately, neither Mr. nor Mrs. Donal was seriously injured. Both escaped with cuts and bruises.

Mr. Donal said he shudders when he thinks how things could have been. For one thing, his wife can’t swim. Just two nights before the accident, while still on their honeymoon at Disney World, Mr. Donal taught his wife how to tread water in the hotel swimming pool.

“Who would have ever thought that two nights later it would save her life?” he said.

Shortly after the accident, Mr. Donal and his brother came back down to Glynn County to see if anything had been salvaged from the wreckage. His new 1972 Chevrolet Caprice was “eaten up from the salt water,” but they did manage to rescue some of the couple’s luggage.

Mr. Donal and his wife now have four children, Jennifer, Mary Ann, Chuck and Patricia.

“We came back down here in 1985 and we showed the kids the bridge,” he said. “That night, we all prayed together and I thanked God we had survived.”