Dangerous Duty

Milton-Madison Bridge worker’s death
revives legend of previous tragedies

‘Voo-Doo Pier 7’ still holds
haunting story of two 1929 fatalities

(July 2012)
Read previous Don Ward columns!
Don Ward

When Rita McCauley received the call April 30 at work from her sister-in-law, Pam Cox, she feared the worst. McCauley’s brother, Roger Cox, a welder, had been severely injured while working on the Milton-Madison Bridge and was being flown via a medical helicopter to the University of Louisville Hospital.
McCauley, who works as a nurse at the Southern Indiana Rehab Hospital in New Albany, Ind., rushed over to the hospital and arrived before the helicopter landed. Soon, family members began showing up. They met with the doctor and learned that their beloved brother was in a coma and being kept alive on a ventilator.
He never recovered. He was taken off life support three days later and died Thursday, May 3, at age 50.

Roger and Pam Cox

Photo courtesy of Rita McCauley

Roger and Pam Cox of Austin, Ind.,
spent 14 years together,
the last four married.

Cox was one of six children who grew up in Scottsburg, Ind. He did not graduate high school but later earned his G.E.D.and learned to weld. He already had a knack for fixing things, especially old cars and trucks. Roger loved to fish and gig frogs and hunt mushrooms. And he loved animals, most recently nursing an injured squirrel back to health.
“He loved anything outdoors,” said Ronnie Cox, 47, Roger’s younger brother. “Everybody loved Roger. He made everybody laugh. And he could fix anything.”
Ronnie said his older brother was not afraid of heights and spent 20 years working as a union welder, many times climbing cell phone towers and water towers to do repair work and change light bulbs.
“He wasn’t afraid to climb on those towers; he was fearless,” Ronnie said.
Roger and his wife, Pam, 41, lived in Austin, Ind., with their daughter, McKenzie, 11. Pam works as a housekeeper at Hampton Inn in Scottsburg. The two have been together for 14 years, and married the last four.
Roger was working with his friend, Ron Mann of Henryville, Ind., to restore a 1971 Camaro. Mann now plans to finish the job and give the car to Cox’s daughter when she is old enough to drive.
“Roger loved old trucks; he could get anything running,” Ronnie Cox said.
McCauley recalled how Roger liked to grow his hair long and then have her braid it. “Then he would have me cut it off and he would hang it from the mirror of his pickup. He was proud of his long hair because the rest of the boys went bald,” she said, laughing.

Roger Cox Sign

Photo by Don Ward

A co-worker inscribed Roger Lee
Cox’s name on one of the temporary
towers for the bridge project.

Roger had two older brothers, Tom, 56, in Scottsburg, and Tim, 56, in Georgia, and another sister, Vicky, 54, in Scottsburg.
Their mother, Joyce, died 10 years ago but their father, 77-year-old T.C., resides in Scottsburg. The family has a large extended family of nieces and nephews.
According to family members, Roger loved his job, and he loved working on the project to replace the Milton-Madison Bridge. In fact, he was pictured on the front cover of the April edition of RoundAbout, standing in his lift bucket high in the air welding the temporary ramp connecting the bridge on the Milton, Ky., side of the Ohio River. He’s the one on the left, with his helmet up.
“He was proud to be working on the new bridge. He loved that bridge; he called it HIS bridge,” said McCauley, 55. “He said they should put his name on it.”
It is now. A few days following his death, Cox’s co-workers mounted a sign on the downstream temporary pier that faces the traffic with his name and the date of his death. “Roger Cox, May 3, 2012.”
It’s still there and perhaps will remain until the temporary bridge supports come down, sometime next year.
Meantime, Cox’s family is still awaiting the results of two accident investigations – one by Walsh Construction Co. and another by Indiana Occupational Safety and Hazard Agency.
Family members say they have their own ideas about what happened, after having spoken with Cox’s coworkers about the accident. Apparently, Cox was operating a lift bucket and for some reason it malfunctioned and his head was pinned between a rail on the bucket and the steel beam of the bridge. The pressure to his neck cut off the circulation to his head. He was found to be unconscious by his coworkers. The death certificate later listed the cause as anoxic brain damage, essentially a lack of oxygen reaching the brain.
Ironically, Cox’s death mirrors the deaths of two bridge workers killed in 1929 during construction of the original Milton-Madison Bridge. Legend has it that one of the workers who died was buried alive inside one of the concrete piers. But that is purely legend. No one is buried inside a pier.
One Vang Construction Co. “sand hog,” however, was buried in sand up to his armpits and his internal organs crushed when the air lock chamber beneath the Pier 7 caisson that he and six others were working in collapsed, according to an Madison Courier article published Feb. 18, 1929. The others escaped death by quickly climbing out of the hole just in time.
But Earl Kelley, 34, of Leitchfield, Ky., did not escape. He was trapped and died.
An air “blow” caused the accident, the article says. The men were working under 35 pounds of pressure and the cutting edge of the caisson had been sunk to the depth of 74 feet below pool stage of the river. One sand hog explained that they had been on duty for only 30 minutes when the air pressure was released slightly and the air found its way under the downstream tube through which the excavation process was conducted. The caisson suddenly dropped 14 inches.
The sand hogs rushed for the small tube through which they had entered the working chamber. Kelley was working in the downstream corner at the time of the air blow. But as he ran by the big tube he was caught in a wild air current.
Kelley’s body was thrown against the steel tube and his feet caught beneath it. As the air escaped from the chamber, the caisson dropped three feet, causing the chamber to fill quickly with water and sand.
When Kelley’s coworkers went back into the air lock a few minutes later, the chamber was dry and they found him stuck in the sand, dying. Only his head and shoulders were visible above the sand. They pulled his body out of the sand. The coroner later determined that he had been crushed and drowned. He was later buried in his family’s cemetery in Leitchfield. He was married with five small children.
A second Vang Construction Co. worker, Richard Thomas, 35, of Louisville was severely burned and later died at King’s Daughters’ Hospital after his clothes caught on fire while making pier repairs. He also had been working on Pier 7, which, according to Jefferson County Public Library research archivist Janice Barnes, later became known as the “voo-doo pier” in later stories and legend that she has read and heard over the years.
The legendary “voo-doo” Pier 7 today has been re-numbered by the Walsh Construction Co. engineers as “Pier 4” and is the second pier out in the Ohio River coming from the Kentucky side. It has been strengthened and rehabilitated to hold the south end of the new truss section that was lifted into place in late June.
The Milton-Madison Bridge Replacement Project, meanwhile, will wind down sometime early next year and the new bridge will open to traffic then. In time, Roger Cox’s name may be forgotten, but the legend of his death will likely survive the times, just as the legend of those two earlier deaths have done.
And while it may always be known simply as the Milton-Madison Bridge, perhaps an asterisk should be added to say: “Roger Cox’s Bridge.”

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email: Don@RoundAbout.bz.

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