On Boats, Bridges and the Fragility of Life

By Daily Editorials

July 31, 2018 3 min read

Missourians have been reminded recently, in two sobering tragedies, that life is fragile, death can be random — and the systems of regulation and inspection that we assume will keep us safe can fail. As we grieve 18 lost lives, some hard questions about those failures demand answers.

In a story that shocked the nation, an amphibious "duck boat" loaded with tourists sank in a storm on Table Rock Lake near Branson on July 19, killing 17. Nine were members of one extended family, the Colemans of Indiana, with four children among them.

On July 23, businesswoman Janet Torrisi-Mokwa, 58, died in her car on Forest Park Parkway in St. Louis — a more familiar-sounding tragedy, but for the freak accident behind it. Torrisi-Mokwa was driving under a bridge when a driver on the street above lost control, rammed into a 1-ton concrete barrier and sent it toppling off the bridge and onto Torrisi-Mokwa's car below.

Stories like these remind us that the sense of self-control over our fates that most of us think we possess is largely an illusion. Some level of risk in life is unavoidable. But in both these cases, there were warnings — in some instances, for years — that might have made a difference had they been heeded. It's imperative to get to the bottom of why warnings were disregarded, less to identify culprits than to prevent future deaths.

The boat's driver (who was among the dead) clearly shouldn't have taken passengers out with a storm of near-hurricane intensity approaching. But there are also questions about the design of the boxy, lumbering boats themselves, a common style in the tourism industry that the National Transportation Safety Board has warned for years isn't safe.

Congress is now looking into it, which is both right and frustrating. It shouldn't take a dead family for those long-held design concerns to be translated into better safety standards.

As for the half-century-old bridge under which Torrisi-Mokwa died, records indicating official concern about its condition go back more than a decade, the Post-Dispatch's Blythe Bernhard reported last week. The Missouri Department of Transportation first deemed the bridge structurally deficient in 2005, and by 2016 was inspecting it annually rather than every other year because of "overhead hazards" and "excessive cracking." Most chillingly, inspectors four years ago found that a concrete railing on the bridge was deteriorating.

Why weren't these concerns addressed then? Will they be now?

Of course, no amount of inspection or regulation will make life completely safe. Ultimately, the only real preparation is to remember that. As Torrisi-Mokwa's husband, former St. Louis Police Chief Joe Mokwa, put it: "I wished when we leave our families in the mornings we didn't take people for granted. You never think you're never going to see them again."

REPRINTED FROM THE ST LOUIS POST DISPATCH

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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