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Bridge rescuer credits 'greater power than us'

Fisherman and rescuer Norman Barton
Fisherman and rescuer Norman Barton  

Editor's Note: CNN Access is a regular feature on providing interviews with newsmakers from around the world.

(CNN) -- Recovery crews continued their efforts Tuesday to retrieve bodies and vehicles from the Arkansas River in eastern Oklahoma, following Sunday's barge accident and bridge collapse on Interstate 40.

The aftermath of the accident has uncovered several stories of bravery, including that of Norman Barton, who was competing in a bass fishing tournament when he saw the bridge collapsing and rushed to help, eventually helping to rescue a man from the water.

Barton talked about his experience Tuesday with CNN's Kris Osborn.

OSBORN: Some might want to use the word "hero" when they talk to you. Tell us what happened.

Oklahoma authorities have set up a family assistance center in Webbers Falls. The number is 918-464-2920. 
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation is asking highway travelers to avoid travel in eastern Oklahoma. Those who must travel in the region are asked to use State Highway 9 or U.S. 64. 
A barge struck an Oklahoma bridge, plunging vehicles into the Arkansas River. (May 26)

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Gallery: Bridge collapse 
Bridge rescuer: 'It's pretty sickening' 
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BARTON: Well, my partner, Randy Graham, and I were actually heading toward the bridge at about 70 mph and got within 600 or 700 yards, and for some reason, my vision focused on the bridge for just a second and it just collapsed, you know. A big wall of water, and it looked like smoke -- I'm sure it was dust -- and everything.

I kept seeing these big splashes at the foot of the bridge and just did not realize what it was until I saw a semi go over, and it was just one car after another just hitting the end of the bridge at 70 mph. Nobody could see that the bridge was gone. That went on for almost five minutes, just one car after another.

And, you know, fortunately there was a bunch of fishermen in a tournament; they were up and down the river there in that area. And a couple of friends of mine, Kirk Washburn and Alton Wilhoit -- who now are my heroes, by the way -- but they had enough foresight to pull out a flare gun and shoot at one of the semis headed toward the drop-off.

From where I was, it looked like Alton's a heck of a shot. It looked like he bounced it off the windshield, and that truck locked up and stopped with its front wheels hanging over the bridge. Then he slammed it in reverse and backed up.

We had run back to the tournament headquarters to have the tournament director start notifying people. And the tournament director was already in action. He was already on his cell phone calling everybody he could think of.

We went back to the bridge, and by that time, Kirk and Alton had pulled Mr. [Rodney] Tidwell into the boat. [Tidwell was driving a semitrailer that ran off the bridge and plunged 62 feet into the river.] But they had, in the process of getting him in the boat, they had gotten swept up against the remaining part of the bridge pier, and they were pinned there. They were hollering and screaming at us that there's a guy under the barge -- we can't get to him, you know, we're hung up here. So we couldn't see the guy for a long time and finally spotted him.

And my partner, Randy Graham, actually ran his boat up under the barge, you know, in all that real swift water. And fortunately, we were able to get a throwable cushion tied to a rope, and I threw it to Mr. [James] Bilyeau [an Arkansas truck driver], and the shape he was in, it didn't look like he was going to be able to hang on to the rope or get to it or anything.

At one point, I saw his hand go up above the water, and he kind of twirled the rope around his hand a couple of times and then went back under. And the force of him hitting into that rope [almost] took me into the water, but I got my feet braced and started pulling and got him fortunately to the boat where I could get an arm and a handful of his clothes.

And I was screaming at Randy to get us out from under this thing, you know, get us out of the barge. And we backed up to a part that was reasonably clear of debris.

And all Mr. Bilyeau could say to us was, "Somebody stop the cars! Somebody stop them!" He had seen them hit in front of him and hit on top of him. So we got him in the boat and got him back to the boat ramp, where the emergency people, of course, by that time, were starting to filter in. Things were happening pretty quick there at that point.

OSBORN: I understand your acts of heroism included the strength to hold on to that rope and pull against the current. How were you able to do that?

BARTON: I told him if I hadn't had any arms, I would have used my teeth. At that point, you know, it was not something you consciously do. It was just one of those situations we were faced with. I know the other guys were doing the same thing, but there was a reason why we were there. There's a greater power than us, and we were just fortunate to be where we were at that time.

OSBORN: I also understand that you kept talking to the man you were rescuing while he was bleeding as a way of keeping him healthy and alive until other help could get there.

BARTON: I've learned a lot from my little brother. He's an emergency medical technician and a firefighter by trade, and I get to listen to all his horror stories about the things he has to do. One of the things I've always heard is, "Keep 'em talking, don't let 'em pass out."

And I knew this guy had been in that cold water and had been in shock and scared to death and was hurting real bad. So I knew that once he got in the boat, he would relax a little bit, and I was afraid he might slip away from us or slip unconscious there for a little bit. But fortunately, he didn't. He stayed awake.

And hours later -- that's why you guys are talking to me -- he remembered my name. And that's how my name got out everywhere, was from him.

OSBORN: Do you have any well wishes for the man you rescued?

BARTON: I've had a couple of conversations with him. He called me [Sunday] night, and he called me again [Monday] as he was leaving the hospital. I told his wife and I told him that as soon as he gets up to it, let's go fishing.




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