JIM DeBROSSE
Email: jimdebrosse@gmail.com

I'm the author of five books, a contributing writer for Cincinnati Magazine, and an award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist who retired in 2018 from teaching journalism at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I'm the former Project Editor of Ohio Civics Essential, a monthly series of stories aimed at educating voters in civics knowledge and engagement. As part of my commitment to social justice, I co-founded a news website devoted to workplace fairness and equal opportunity, "Cincinnatians for the American Dream." I live in Cincinnati's historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood and volunteer as an English teacher for immigrants through Catholic Charities.

 

 

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MY LATEST STORIES

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The Brent Spence Bridge’s traffic chokehold has taken a back seat to political cowardice and misplaced priorities for decades. Will the federal infrastructure bill finally bail out regional leaders who fiddled while the bridge burned?

The skies over Northern Kentucky were unleashing a chilly downpour on November 11, 2020, as Mansour Thiam drove his International semi north on Interstate 71/75 toward downtown Cincinnati and the Brent Spence Bridge. Traffic was mercifully light at 2:30 in the morning, though it backed up short of the Radisson Hotel in Covington.

Another semi had jackknifed on the slippery road and was disabled in the breakdown lane. Diesel fuel from the truck had sloshed across the highway. Thiam was careful crossing the oily slick, then joined the renewed flow of traffic as he continued north in the middle lane.

As he entered the lower deck of the bridge and its notoriously dark and narrow lanes, Thiam could feel his trailer begin to fishtail behind him into the far left lane. That’s where truck driver Raul Herrera happened to be rolling by in his Freightliner with a load of potassium hydroxide, a highly corrosive chemical. Even if Herrera had seen Thiam coming, he couldn’t have avoided the swerving trailer. A foot to his rig’s left was a concrete barrier and then an 80-foot plunge into the Ohio River below.

The first of Herrera’s double trailers collided with the back of Thiam’s load, and the two semis careened into a massive, tangled heap that ignited one or both of their fuel tanks and blocked all four lanes of the northbound deck. Miraculously, both truck drivers exited their cabs without serious injuries, but Herrera was in such shock he didn’t see that his rig was on fire. Thiam had to tell him to get clear as the blaze worked its way back toward his load of potassium hydroxide.

Other drivers entering the bridge, including a truck hauling a load of fuel, came to a stop as Herrera’s load caught fire and fed the blaze into a brilliant inferno. The flames spread out over the roofline of the bridge’s southbound upper deck, 15 feet above, burning at temperatures as high as 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit—hot enough to compromise the strength of steel beams.

Covington police arrived five minutes later but couldn’t get close enough to see if anyone was trapped or injured. The heat was so intense it set their uniforms ablaze, says Covington Police Specialist Joseph Gier, who reviewed the accident report.

Covington fire crews arrived soon after but held off taking any action after spotting the HAZMAT label on Herrera’s trailer. Speeding over the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge, Cincinnati firefighters joined the Covington crews already stationed on the Kentucky shore. When the chemical in Herrera’s load was identified, water boats were called to the scene with fire-suppressing foam. But their hoses weren’t powerful enough to reach the fire.

While the blaze continued unabated, motorists stuck on the lower deck of the bridge were directed to back up and turn around to the Fourth Street exit in Covington. Truck drivers were told to abandon their rigs so police could drive them to the nearest exits. Eventually, firefighters were able to reach the blaze by lugging hundreds of feet of hosing up an aerial ladder from the shore. The fire took almost two hours to extinguish.

The early morning nightmare could have been far worse. What if the accident had occurred at 2:45 p.m. rather than 2:45 a.m.? What if the truck drivers hadn’t been able to exit their cabs? What if the fire had reached the trapped semi with its load of fuel? And what if the earlier truck accident hadn’t slowed traffic as it entered the bridge?

The lesson from that near-tragedy a year ago is this: The Brent Spence Bridge is unsafe at any speed and has been for decades while local, state, and national leaders have done little to remedy the problem. From the moment the bridge opened a few days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, the three-lane, double-decker design was already on its way to being “structurally obsolete”—engineer-speak for inadequate to handle the flow of traffic, then 80,000 vehicles per day. Traffic from Interstate 71 was added to the bridge in both directions in 1970 with no additional lanes to handle the flow.

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Atkinson has been serving up scenes and characters from his short stories and plays for decades in insightful, unforgettable ways.

Denise Burgess read the short story 10 years ago and can’t recall the title, but a scene from it has stuck with her like so many others in Thom Atkinson’s writing. Two down-on-their-luck teenage girls share a cigarette in an alley behind a small hair and tanning salon, where the older teen is primping for the prom and the younger one reluctantly works.

They lean against a cinder block wall, then drop down and sit together in the gravel, flicking ashes into the alley. Having never been on friendly terms, the girls trade pointed barbs at first about each other’s family and friends. But then the older teen confides that she’s pregnant and hasn’t told anyone. The dynamic between the two girls suddenly changes from hateful to sisterly.

“The details in that scene are so layered that they resonate in your head, even if you’ve never smoked a cigarette in an alley,” says Burgess, the self-described president of the still-to-be-founded Thom Atkinson Fan Club. “The way he describes it, you’re right there with those two characters in that moment. He’s so observant. He takes in everybody no matter who or where they are.”

Atkinson, 63, has been serving up scenes and characters from his short stories and plays for decades in insightful, unforgettable ways. The Cincinnati native is a five-time winner of the Ohio Arts Council’s Individual Excellence Award and has had plays staged at Ensemble Theatre (Circle of Mystery, Copperheads, Cuttings) and Playhouse in the Park (Clear Liquor and Coal Black Nights) as well as theaters in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. He’s twice been nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize in short fiction and had his short stories included in half a dozen anthologies.

But despite collecting enough literary honors and critical accolades to wallpaper his home office in Anderson Township, popular acclaim has been elusive. Atkinson and his devotees are hoping that will change with the release this fall of his second novel, Tiki Man (Regal House Publishing), the story of an abandoned 10-year-old girl and the under-employed, sobriety-challenged man who takes her under his broken wing. Its cast of characters and themes are common to much of Atkinson’s writing: people living on the margins of society struggling to do the best they can for each other with a limited set of skills and options.

“A great writer is the kind who can live 1,000 lives and truly not hold back what’s happening,” says novelist and artist Robin Winter, who met Atkinson at several Santa Barbara Writers Conferences. “Thom to me is someone who has lived all of those lives, and he hasn’t judged them at all. He wants to be those people with every fiber of his being.”