Rebuilding the Blue Nile footbridge

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In the Blue Nile Canyon of Ethiopia, a single footbridge is the only connection for people who live on opposite sides of the river. The ancient bridge has been repeatedly destroyed and repaired over the centuries. Now, a team of American volunteers has built a new, sturdier suspension bridge across the chasm. Reporter Daniel Glick was there as the new span was put into place.

JEB SHARP: I'm Jeb Sharp. This is The World. A deep gorge that many compare to the Grand Canyon cuts through the highlands of Ethiopia on the Horn of Africa. The Blue Nile flows along the bottom of the gorge. The river separates two remote regions. Only a single footbridge connects them. The ancient bridge has been destroyed repeatedly by man and nature. Recently, a group of volunteers from the U.S. went to Ethiopia to replace the bridge. Reporter Daniel Glick was there and he chronicles their struggles.

DANIEL GLICK: Deep in the Blue Nile Canyon 15 miles from the nearest road, a temporary village has sprouted on the stony riverbanks. Men gather looking for work. A young girl sells bananas. Guards toting AK-47s keep an eye on the activity. Joining them are a couple dozen volunteers from around Ethiopia and the United States. Their ambitious goal? In less than one week to complete a new footbridge across the Blue Nile.

ZOE PACCIANI: The biggest challenge is getting the materials here.

GLICK: Zoe Pacciani is program director for an American non-profit called Bridges to Prosperity. The group builds footbridges in poor rural areas around the world. She supervised the complex task of getting a bridge's worth of construction materials down a steep footpath to the river's edge.

PACCIANI: Imagine you've got to use a hundred and fifty bags of cement and every single bag of cement has to get down here by donkey.

GLICK: They also had to bring down twenty five hundred feet of steel rebar. A giant cable winch that took four men to carry, torque wrenches, box wrenches, and six gigantic steel cables.

PACCIANI: One single cable weighs over a ton.

GLICK: It took 23 men to carry each cable down the rocky canyon trail. Bridges to Prosperity marshaled all this effort because the 370-year-old arched stone footbridge here is damaged beyond repair. And that's cut a critical connection between villages on opposite sides of the river, in the regions of Gojjam and Gondor. Yirgelem Ambachew of the Rotary Club International in Ethiopia says a functioning bridge here allows people on one side of the river to go to the other for health care, schooling, and trade.

YIRGELEM AMBACHEW: It's really a bridge of their lives. You know, if it is broken, their life is broken.

GLICK: The bridge has broken many times in its long history.

KEN FRANTZ: It's really quite an amazing story.

GLICK: Ken Frantz is the founder of Bridges to Prosperity. He's become something of a historian of this bridge.

FRANTZ: It was built in 1640 approximately, by a very famous Emperor Fasil, and he was just a building maniac.

GLICK: Emperor Fasil's bridge spurred a flourishing trade route, but as people chopped down trees in this area, erosion increased and so did flooding. Increased flooding undermined the bridge.

FRANTZ: So it was constantly being washed out until it got the name the Sebara Dildiy. Sebara Dildiy in Amharic means broken bridge.

GLICK: In 1936, Ethiopian Nationalists destroyed the Sebara Dildiy on purpose, to slow Mussolini's invasion during World War II. Makeshift repairs using logs held the bridge together until the mid-1950s. After that, travelers and their livestock could only cross the river on a tattered rope pulled by ten men on either side of the river. Nine years ago, Ken Frantz saw a photograph of this precarious scene in National Geographic and decided to fix the broken bridge. He assembled a team to repair Sebara Dildiy in 2002 using steel beams that were painstakingly carried down and assembled on site. But that bridge didn't last. A flood destroyed it in 2006. That's why Frantz and his team have returned to Ethiopia to try again. This time, they've taken on a more ambitious project, a new cable suspension bridge, much longer and higher off the river, but not everything would go as planned.

AVERY BANG: All right, tell everyone, the higher one is coming from the inside?

GLICK: Bridges to Prosperity's director of operations Avery Bang supervised final preparations. She found a few surprises. Her group had trained a young Ethiopian engineer to oversee construction of steel and concrete anchors on opposite walls of the canyon. These would secure the cables, but the location of the anchors was different from what the plans had called for.

BANG: The excavation was supposed to be further back and deeper. What are you going to do? You have to redesign.

GLICK: So the team revamped the way the cables would be cemented into the anchors. The pace of work picked up after all six cables had been hauled into place. On one side of the river, workers began winching the cables tight. The cables slowly rose in a gently drooping arch between the canyon walls. On the other side, workers sawed wooden planks for the walkway. Ken Frantz and two of his brothers nailed the planks in place. They were halfway across the span, 80 feet above the river, when calamity struck. A stone pillar that anchored one of the handrails rocked, then tipped, then tumbled down the steep hillside. Ken Frantz's brother Forrest later recalled the tense moment.

FORREST FRANTZ: We looked up, looked out across the river, and it's pretty far away. It's hard to see the details, what's going across the river, but you could see the tower collapse. The cable dropped, hit the ground, and a cloud of dust came up. The next thing we heard was horrifying. And that was the sound of things dropping into the river. We could not see through the dust. We did not know what was falling into the river. We did not know if it was rocks or if it was people.

GLICK: Thankfully, it wasn't people. Nobody was hurt, and the bridge's main cables held tight. But the crew would have to start again with the handrails. They began combing through the rubble for clues to what went wrong. Program Director Zoe Pacciani discovered that the stone tower hadn't been anchored properly with steel rebar.

PACCIANI: I think we've got a little trust-building to do after today. We can build this thing up again, that's not a big deal. It'll take us a week. It will take us a lot longer to rebuild the trust of these people and what we're doing. That annoys me more than anything.

GLICK: Pacciani and her team began cleaning up the mess. They redesigned the towers to make them straighter and stronger. They ordered more concrete and rebar carried down the steep canyon trail. A week later, the bridge was ready to be reassembled. Again, planks were nailed, cables tightened, and this time everything held. Ken Frantz, who first fixed this bridge eight years ago and has built some 50 others around the world since then, gazed across the span suspended high above the Blue Nile.

FRANTZ: Today's the day. There it is. Glorious. It is done.

GLICK: For now at least, the Sebara Dildiy, the broken bridge, will have to be renamed. For The World, I'm Daniel Glick, Gojjam, Ethiopia

SHARP: You can see Daniel Glick's photos of the bridge reconstruction. Go to The World dot org.