Mackinac Machinations?

Mark’s recent post, Fake events of my lifetime, got me thinking: what news stories of the past left me feeling … unconvinced? A certain incident immediately popped into mind. Either I am an insensitive lout who is pitilessly digging up a family’s grief, or I have put my finger on an old school hoax—one from the days before cellphone videos and crisis actors. You help decide …


Car Trouble

The United States was slow to forget the oil crisis of the 1970s. Gasoline rationing and lines at the pumps going around the block were anathema to the post-WWII lifestyle that Americans had gotten used to enjoying. The oil shortage changed their political views, and more than that, their buying habits.

Most deeply affected was the American auto industry. Higher oil prices pushed market demand for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Japan and Europe made fine compact cars; Detroit could never quite figure out the formula for a reliable, comfortable, and stylish smaller car. By the 1980s, Japan surpassed the US as the largest automobile producer in the world. Even with the oil glut of the mid-1980s, American consumers had acquired a taste for smaller cars and better fuel economy.

The Big Three struggled to compete. Labor suffered along with management: the United Auto Workers had to accept lay-offs, early retirements, and plant closings as a result. American manufacturing as a whole was hurt by the downturn in the auto industry. The Japanese auto firms were looking to move into the luxury car market as well, further eroding the demand for Detroit’s stock in trade—the big, heavy, high-powered sedans, like Buicks, Cadillacs, and Lincolns. As the old saying goes: “When General Motors sneezes, America catches a cold.” Not just GM, but Ford and Chrysler, too, were sneezing hard. The American economy caught a cold, and the Michigan economy came down with pneumonia.

To add insult to injury, in 1985 Zastava Automobiles, a Yugoslavian firm, began to export their subcompacts to the US. The Yugo never gained too large a market share, but the very idea that some pinko Iron-Curtain concern could sell cars—not just in the United States generally, but in metro Detroit itself!—was a grave humiliation.

Detroit had only one ace up its sleeve—the allegation that small cars were less safe than the behemoths it so loved. The evidence for this claim was not as straightforward as one might think. The statistics were confounded by too many variables, like the age and aggressiveness of the drivers of light (and cheap) vehicles versus heavier (more expensive) vehicles. Consumers weren’t being swayed by statistical abstractions. Something else was needed—something vivid and visual—to help make the case to consumers that American cars were still the better buy.

Dire Straits

That something came along on the afternoon of September 22, 1989. Leslie Ann Pluhar of Royal Oak, Michigan set off on the four-hour drive to the Upper Peninsula to visit her boyfriend, Frederick Burton. The 31-year-old part-time UPS worker and part-time waitress at the Clawson Steakhouse had met Burton while she was vacationing near Newberry, up on the Lake Superior side of the UP. Burton was “Mr. Right,” Pluhar had told her friends, and on this visit she was going to meet his mother for the first time. Burton was looking into starting his own business, a trout farm near Gould City, MI and Pluhar was eager to help him make his dream a reality.

The Straits of Mackinac are the narrow band of water connecting Lake Michigan to Lake Huron and separating the Lower Peninsula of Michigan from the Upper Peninsula. The Straits are no stranger to severe weather. And on that Friday in early autumn of 1989, winds from the northwest had been blowing stiffly all day. Around 6:40pm, as Pluhar’s blue Yugo began the climb up to the center span of the Mackinac Bridge, the weather was clear, the temperature was around 43º F, and wind speeds were recorded at 35 mph—strong, but not unusually strong for the Straits area. An hour earlier, there had been rain and reports of 48 mph gusts, but those they had abated somewhat by the time Pluhar reached the bridge.

What happened next remains a mystery. Somehow Pluhar’s vehicle ended up in the Straits. It is reported to have gone over the side railing, after which it struck a support girder and then dropped another 150 feet into the cold waters below, coming to rest 100 feet below the surface at a spot directly under the bridge, on an underwater ledge near a steep drop-off into a very deep channel.

Some motorists reported to the authorities that something terrible had happened, but high winds and the impending sunset at 7:35pm made search and rescue impossible. Indeed, continual bad weather made it impossible to get to the car until the Saturday of the following week. On Wednesday, September 27 the State Police recovery team pinpointed the submerged vehicle with sonar, but only on Saturday, September 30 could a team of divers raise the car from the water that evening after ten hours of underwater maneuvering. They had difficulty extricating the body of the driver from the wreckage: the tiny Yugo was crumpled like an accordion. The Pluhar family had been holed up in a St. Ignace motel for the entire week, awaiting the task of making a positive identification of the driver.

The medical examiner determined that Pluhar had sustained severe injuries in the fall from the bridge, but that she was still alive (though probably unconscious) as the car sank. Dr. Stephen Cohle found that “the cause of death was multiple injuries to the head, chest, and abdomen, and asphyxia by drowning.” She was not wearing her seatbelt, curiously. Cohle also determined that Pluhar had an “extremely low level of alcohol in her system at the time of the accident.” (Intoxication per Michigan law is 0.10, and Pluhar measured 0.01.)

Leslie Ann Pluhar was laid to rest at the White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, Michigan, following a funeral on October 3 at the Wm. Sullivan & Son Funeral Home in Royal Oak.


Within days of the accident, the Michigan Senate formed a subcommittee to investigate the safety of the Mackinac Bridge. The bridge had been opened in 1957, and its design reflected the safety standards of an earlier era. The Mackinac Bridge Authority argued strenuously that the bridge was safe, pointing to the sixty-four million vehicles that had crossed in all kinds of weather without incident previously. No structural changes have been made to the bridge as a result of Pluhar’s fall. However, since the incident, the Bridge Authority has been posting notices of high winds for motorists and offering an escort program for people too scared to drive over the span themselves.

The Pluhar family retained attorney F. Joseph Cady to pursue civil litigation against the State of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Transportation, the Mackinac Bridge Authority, and the New York architectural firm that designed the bridge. The defendants insisted that the freak accident was somehow Pluhar’s fault and had no chance of being repeated. Nevertheless, the state settled out of court in 1994, citing mounting costs as the reason for ending the suit.

And How …?

Take a few moments and enjoy this virtual five-mile journey southbound across the Mackinac Bridge.

What you see is a suspension bridge with two northbound lanes and two southbound lanes, divided by a low center “mall” (a glorified speed bump) that is two feet wide and four inches high. This mall is made of concrete for most of the length of the bridge.

However, on the part of the span that is suspended by cables, the inner two lanes are not asphalt, but rather a set of steel grates. These grates serve to allow for the bridge itself to weigh less and to be less affected by resonant wind stresses. The bridge is also designed to flex in high winds, as much as 35 feet east or west at center span. For the 7400 feet of suspension bridge, that mall in the median is made of steel, with sides gently sloping in towards the top at a low angle; the top of the mall here is about one foot wide. Along the outer lanes for the entire length of the bridge are two railings: a low curb railing about a foot high, separated by a narrow catwalk from an outer railing that is about three feet high. Outside of the higher railing one notices at regular intervals (about two car-lengths apart) the pairs of suspender cables coming down from the main cables attached to the towers. At its highest point mid-span, the roadway is 200 feet above the water.


How exactly did an automobile manage to leave the deck of the Mackinac Bridge?

Wikipedia offers different theories of the accident:

At the entry for Zastava Koral (Yugo):

In 1989, 31-year-old Leslie Ann Pluhar, driving a 1987 Yugo over the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan, died when her Yugo went over the bridge’s 36-inch (910 mm) railing during 50 mph (80 km/h) winds. The incident was widely publicized, with the make of car prominently identified. Many retellings claim that the car was physically lifted and blown off the bridge. However, a lawsuit by the family of the victim made no such claim, but proposed that the wind contributed to a loss of control that ended with the car’s going off the bridge. Expert testimony disputed whether the winds were a major factor. Another proposed explanation is that a collision with a guardrail on the bridge’s median “launched” the car onto the opposite guardrail.

At the entry for Mackinac Bridge:

On September 22, 1989, Leslie Ann Pluhar died when her 1987 Yugo plunged over the 36-inch-high (91 cm) railing. A combination of high winds and excessive speed was initially blamed. Later investigation showed the driver had stopped her car over the open steel grating on the bridge’s span and that a gust of wind through the grating blew her vehicle off the bridge, although this is not supported by recorded wind speed measurements taken on and around the bridge at the time of the accident.

Together with other witness accounts in the media after the accident, four distinct explanations emerge of the physics of Pluhar’s plunge into the Straits.

Theory 1: Frightened by the strong winds, Pluhar came to a complete stop on the inside northbound lane, over the steel grates. A rogue updraft of tremendous strength picked up her vehicle and blew it up from the inside lane, across the outside lane, over the curb railing and the outer railing, off the bridge and into the water.

Theory 2: Pluhar drifted into the median, where the center guardrail bounced her sharply back across the two lanes, up and onto the outer railings and then over the side.

Theory 3: Pluhar lost control of the car and skidded across the center mall into the oncoming southbound lanes (or else simply straddled the mall). She overcorrected to get back into her own lane and headed straight toward the outer railings. A gust of wind through the grate worked with the low curb railing so that, rather than bouncing her backwards, the car experienced enough front-end elevation to straddle the outer railing, thereafter sliding along it some 40-45 feet until the car struck another object (a suspender cable in some accounts, a support girder in others), causing the Yugo to spin off into the lake.

Theory 4: Pluhar was not frightened by the weather, but rather was speeding on the bridge. The posted limit is 45 mph, but Pluhar’s speed—according to police investigators—was 55-63 mph or even higher. At some point the strong northwest headwind worked with her speed to provide enough lift to cause the 1832-lb. Yugo to become airborne, after which it straddled the outer railing, slid along it, and spun off into the water.

These theories are utterly incompatible with the sum of witness accounts and with known facts.

Theory 1—that the Yugo stopped over a grate and got gusted into the drink—is implausible on the face of it. None of the earliest witness accounts have Pluhar stopping on the bridge. And what kind of upward (and lateral) force would it take to lift a car weighing one ton (with occupant and baggage) and hurl it out of the eleven-foot wide grated lane, across a twelve-foot wide paved lane, across a three-foot span of curb railing and catwalk, and up and over another three-foot railing? The wind speed recorded at the putative time of the accident was 35 mph. If this were possible, why has does this not happen more often in times of higher winds? And yet we hear of no other cases of cars over the grates being pushed up and sideways. Wikipedia makes a point of mentioning that the lawsuit made no claims about high winds blowing the car off the bridge … and yet presents this theory as the present explanation of record.

Theory 2—that the Yugo struck and bounced off the median guardrail into and over the outer railings—is trivially false. Pace Wikipedia, there is no railing in the median and never has been. (Oddly, even some northern Michigan newspapers have repeated this bit of misinformation, even though their readers should have firsthand knowledge of Mackinac Bridge design.) The four-inch high metal mall would redirect a car only at lower speeds. A car at higher speeds would simply cross it like a speed bump, as in Theory 3, which has the car crossing the mall twice.

Theory 3—that the Yugo crossed over the median and then overcorrected while crossing back, hitting the outer railings head on and launching upwards—cannot be maintained in the face of the damage to the railings … which was practically none. The Bridge Superintendent Walter North said plainly of the railing: “It doesn’t look like it’s had an impact and rightfully so, because there was no structural damage to the bridge.” [Michigan Daily, 9-26-89, p.5] How does a one-ton object strike a railing directly at high speed and not do more than just scrape up the paint?!? Furthermore, the scraping indicates that, according to North: “the vehicle went over the side at close to a right angle” [ibid.].

This early account of the scraping pattern would be contradicted by later accounts. Why? Perhaps because North’s facts are incompatible with State Police’s proposed scenario in which the car, after striking the railings and projecting upwards, slides along them for 40-45 feet before striking another structural element and falling off. (If you look again at the bridge, you see that the car should have encountered one or more cables before going a full 40 feet.) And again, how would striking a suspender cable or a girder not serve to spin the sliding car back down onto the roadbed? How could a lateral collision against the elevated front end of the car propel the back end up and over the railing as well? And why wouldn’t the friction of sliding along a rail for 40 feet diminish the forces on the northbound car enough to keep it from going any further in an easterly direction?

And if a car, by some mysterious means, had enough force to get launched off the deck of the bridge, would not that same momentum send it clear of the supporting structures of the bridge? Instead, we are told, the car slid along the railings, struck a cable or girder, then fell directly downward “onto a 21-inch girder that slopes down to a 45-degree slant for about 40 feet, where it meets a vertical and a horizontal girder.” From there the car plunged to the water “from inside the bridge superstructure” [Detroit Free Press, 9-27-89, p. 14A], causing it to sink at a spot directly beneath the bridge. Whatever eastward momentum that could cause a car to vault a railing should also be enough momentum in a free fall to allow the car to gain separation from the lower parts of the bridge, especially with the help of a strong wind from the northwest!

Theory 4—that Pluhar was speeding, and that speed and wind created an aerodynamic lift that blew the car off the bridge “like a piece of paper being swept away in the wind” (per southbound witness Jim Jaskiewicz: Lansing State Journal, 9-26-89, p, 1B)—is a physical impossibility, as was argued by engineers and insurance company experts in the course of the lawsuit.

In the fall of 1991, the Michigan State Police acquired a Yugo identical to Pluhar’s, and even shaved down the tires to match the wear on hers. Try as they might, they were unable to recreate her loss of control under similar conditions. [Detroit Free Press, 12-11-91, p. 10A]

There is another problem with this theory, a psychological one. I owe this insight to a man who crosses the Mackinac Bridge monthly for work year-round. He says:

“I have traveled the entire length of I-75 multiple times, from Sault Ste. Marie to Miami, Florida. There is only one stretch of that expressway where going the speed limit is the rule and not the exception: the five miles of the Mackinac Bridge. That bridge is scary for everyone. Even some professional truckers will not drive it, but turn their rigs over to Bridge personnel for the crossing. The lanes feel abnormally narrow and there is no shoulder on either side for five miles straight. Oncoming traffic is only a few feet to your left, and there is nothing but a low curb to keep them away from you, and vice-versa. On the metal grates your tires buzz and drift: loss of control feels imminent. In fair weather and broad daylight, some people go as fast as 50, but in any other conditions, drivers stick to the speed limit, and many travel well under it. There’s no way that lady was going over 60 that night, or even over 50.”

Adding to that opinion is this fact: on a congested roadway, you can’t go faster than the car in front of you. Friday evening traffic is heavy northbound on the Mackinac Bridge from May through September, as people from downstate head up to their cottages for the weekend. Pluhar could exceed 60 mph only if the cars in front of her in the left lane were traveling even faster. And the likelihood that so many drivers would choose to drive so fast in windy twilight conditions is vanishingly small.

It is equally unlikely that on a crowded and narrow roadway, a car that was crossing into oncoming lanes, fishtailing, and even spinning around 360º a couple times (per some accounts) before hitting and dragging along a railing would not at some point have struck another vehicle. And yet, we are told, somehow Pluhar managed to do just this.

Not to mention: the Yugo was a notoriously underpowered subcompact. At the putative spot of the accident, Pluhar would have been going uphill towards center span into a stiff headwind. To reach the 63 mph the State Police hypothesized for her, she would have had to put the pedal to the metal, under conditions in which most people would instinctively lay off the accelerator. It just doesn’t add up …

The Plot Thickens

At this point we have an event without explanation, but with lots of contradictory testimony between the witnesses and the evidence. This by itself is unremarkable: few things in life come neatly bundled and tied up with a ribbon. Inexplicable things happen every day, and very few are due to conspiratorial shenanigans. Why then do I catch the scent of deception?

• Multiple searches of the Social Security Death Index have turned up no mention of Leslie Ann Pluhar.

• Pluhar’s neighbors at her Royal Oak apartment complex say that she had moved in only two or three months before the accident [Detroit Free Press, 9-27-89, p. 14A; Battle Creek Enquirer, 9-28-89, p. 1]. Her friends also report that Pluhar and Burton planned to marry within the next six months [Detroit Free Press, 9-28-89, p. 1A]: in some press accounts, Burton is called a fiancé rather than a boyfriend. Why would a woman who was planning to marry and move up to the Upper Peninsula in less than a year take the trouble of getting a new apartment?

• The later press accounts of the accident play up the issue of Pluhar’s speeding, although the early witnesses emphasize wind as the key factor and not her speed. Witness Jim Jaskiewicz told reporters outright: “It wasn’t like the driver was speeding or anything.”

• Pluhar’s driving record made it into the papers: four speeding convictions, one drunk-driving conviction, two license suspensions and a restriction between 1982 and 1984. But she had no tickets since her license was reinstated in February, 1985. It strikes me as unusual for the papers to cast aspersions on an accident victim by printing past bad acts. It seems like an attempt to smear the victim rather than explain the accident.

• Likewise, the medical examiner’s statement that Pluhar had an “extremely low level of alcohol in her system” seems like further post-mortem character assassination. Can a coroner really determine blood alcohol levels on a body that has been underwater for eight days?

• The cast of characters in this drama is drawn from an unusually large geographical range. The medical examiner worked in Grand Rapids, four hours south of the Straits. The judge who presided over the civil suit, Macomb Circuit Court Judge Michael Schwartz, heard the case as an acting state Court of Claims judge. Why not one of the regular judges? And the Pluhar family attorney, F. Joseph Cady, was from Saginaw (some accounts say Sault Ste. Marie). Why would a Detroit-area family choose a small-town attorney from 100 miles north (or more!) rather than a big-time law firm from the big city?

• Wikipedia at one time claimed: “In actuality every driver that day had been warned against traversing the bridge. Pluhar had insisted on making the crossing, and officials said later that excess speed was a factor in her death.” This false claim was later removed. This disinformation is re-quoted around the Internet in discussions of the incident.

• The amount of the settlement in the civil suit seems low for a wrongful death award for a young woman at the start of her working life. It was reported in the press as follows [Detroit Free Press, 9-18-94, p. 25]:

“The family of a Royal Oak woman killed when her car plunged off the Mackinac Bridge in 1989 will get $325,000 as part of a $555,000 settlement with the Michigan Department of Transportation. The parents and four brothers and sisters of Leslie Ann Pluhar, 31, each will get $44,444, plus $55,000 combined from the bridge’s architects. Their lawyers were awarded $288,320 in costs and fees.”

For even numbers, these sure seem odd … AND they don’t add up …

• Cady’s case against the State seems so flimsy: he practically conceded that Pluhar’s own actions caused her to lose control of her vehicle. Why would the State opt to settle?

• The news accounts consistently mention the make of the car as a Yugo, and attribute the accident to the light weight and small size of the vehicle. Yet no small car before or since has gotten blown off the bridge—not even the Smart cars and Priuses of today!

• Somehow in the course of the accident, the rear window of the Yugo popped off the car and fell onto a girder below, where it was found intact, albeit shattered. It’s not quite a scorched hijacker’s passport in 9/11 rubble, mind you … but still a curious quirk of physics that allows an object with such high momentum to land so squarely on such a narrow spot, waiting to be found by searchers.

• In several Internet discussions of the incident, one finds posters claiming a personal relationship with Pluhar and trying to sway the discussion with obvious disinformation (more below).

Cui Bono?

Two years after Pluhar’s plunge, a Detroit Free Press article [12-11-91, p.1] opened with these words:

“The file on the accident has grown to 11½ feet thick—almost exactly the length of the 1987 Yugo that Leslie Ann Pluhar was driving when she plunged to her death off the Mackinac Bridge. But nowhere in more than 6000 pages of charts, reports, and witness accounts is there an answer as to why the little blue car suddenly veered out of its lane on Sept. 22, 1989, and crashed into the Straits of Mackinac.” [emphasis added]

In the wake of 9/11 and other hoaxes, I am emboldened to suggest a new answer. Maybe … it didn’t actually happen.

Maybe Pluhar didn’t drive north that Friday afternoon. Maybe she is still alive under a new identity. Maybe she turned over her Yugo for someone to smash up and dump off a barge right under the bridge. Maybe the witnesses were shills. Maybe the officials handling the case were cherry-picked from around the state because they would cooperate with a hoax. Maybe the Bridge Authority allowed the scam, so long as their bridge did not get scraped up too much. Maybe the family played along with the charade, took the modest payout, and got on with their lives as quietly as they could.

But who would benefit from such a hoax?

Back in September of 1989, old Maarten here was not the only one who said out loud: This Mackinac Bridge accident is the best thing that has happened to Detroit in a long time.

Something was needed to stop the erosion of Detroit’s market share to foreign compact cars. And that something came in the form of a story about a gust of wind that picked up a tiny Yugo like a kite and dumped it off a bridge. Thereafter, a pall of suspicion was cast over the “rice-burners” from Japan and any other small imports. Even though the Yugo stopped being sold in America by 1992, its name remained synonymous with “foreign-made death-trap” for years to come. In 1999, Rush Limbaugh got a laugh from his radio listeners playing a parody of an Elvis anthem performed by Paul Shanklin, called “In a Yugo”—a ballad about a young liberal couple that buy a used Yugo for its eco-friendliness and get flattened by a produce truck when they swerved to miss a baby duck. Every time Limbaugh played that tune, he was reinforcing the memory of the Pluhar incident.

By the mid-1990s, Detroit figured out that it could get around the Corporate Average Fuel Economy mandates by developing new lines of light trucks and SUVs, to which the CAFE standards did not apply. These heavier vehicles were a hit with consumers, who eschewed fuel economy in favor of safety. Detroit also began to partner with its Japanese competitors in the 1990s, this assuring its foothold in the smaller car market in years ahead.

And the poster child for the campaign that “Size Means Safety” was Leslie Ann Pluhar. Even though her name was soon forgotten, the image of her crumpled Yugo being dredged from the depths of the Straits of Mackinac would not be. It was the best thing that had happened to the Big Three and Big Labor in a long time. And Big Oil, too, since bigger American-made cars guzzle more gallons of gasoline than Yugos, Hondas, and Volvos.

In retrospect, it’s pretty easy to trace out the evolution of the Pluhar story. The industry and/or labor honchos came up with a plan to discredit small cars: create a situation in which one just blows away. Find an owner of a Yugo. This would certainly be a person with a low income. Probably someone who would jump for chance at a new life under a new identity. Someone working two low-status part-time jobs, maybe. Keep the whole operation in Michigan, where so many government officials are compromised by the clout of the auto industry.

Work up a story that has the Yugo owner driving over the Mackinac Bridge. Arrange with a couple of low-level shills to be “witnesses” of a car going over the side due to the wind. Beforehand, have a small barge float under the bridge long enough to push the freshly-crumpled Yugo into the water at the designated spot. Do it directly under the bridge so that you can’t be seen. Maybe find a cadaver from a local medical school to stick in the car as the driver. Arrange for the paint on the outer railing to have a few scrapes in one spot, like those of a car passing over perpendicular to the rail. Et voila! Easy-peasy, Japa- … well … you know …

Except that … this story unravels almost from the start. Engineers and bridge experts come forward immediately to say that there’s no way the wind alone could sweep a car off that bridge.

Eh, so what? Pay a couple of more union shills to come forward with the amended story: it wasn’t just the wind; the Yugo driver was speeding, too.

That story doesn’t fly? OK, try this. Witnesses saw the Yugo driver stop completely and get heaved over the side by an updraft through the grate.

That’s a non-starter? OK, the Yugo driver lost control (who knows … “glug-glug” maybe?), swerved and spun out and hit the railing and skidded and teetered on the edge and then dropped straight down.

Why did she lose control? Well, it’s like this: the car hit the center guardrail. I mean, it bounced off the median barrier. I mean, it crossed over the barrier into oncoming traffic and then made a sharp right turn back towards the railing …

Sumpin’ like that. Trust us, it happened. Just give us a day to scrape off a little more paint from the railings … You’ll see what we mean.

(From the Detroit Free Press, Wednesday, September 27, 1989, page 14A. Can you see the scratches from a Yugo sliding on the railing? Me neither …)

Of course, a story like this—like any fib—needs regular tune-ups. Not a problem: corporations have always had people to handle situations and nowadays online as well. Just make sure your team of cyber-muscle is on the lookout to misdirect questioners and solidify the accepted version of the incident. That means editing Wikipedia pages to add “facts” about non-existent center guardrails and same-day warnings to motorists not to cross the Mackinac Bridge.

And it means keeping an eye on Internet forums and commenting as necessary. Like this curious note from spartan1998 on

Mar 27, 2012
I remember her [i.e. Pluhar]. She was a waitress at Foxy’s in Troy. My family ate there all the time. My dad used to make fun of her Yugo. I was only 12 but I remember she was cute and very nice.
Can I get a “cool story bro?”

Reeeaaalllllly????? Your dad makes it his business to know what kind of cars his waitresses drive? I wonder if spartan1998 knew any Sandy Hook families, too.

Another acquaintance of the Pluhar family coincidentally shows up on the same forum! Serenity offers this insight:

Mar 26, 2012
Wow, crazy you bring this up. That women that died was the woman that initially introduced my mom and dad to each other years before that accident.

Another poster questioned whether the causes of the accident had been rectified since. Someone responds yes, but then Serenity chimes in:

Mar 26, 2012
Wrong. The bridge in those days did not have the rail protection it does now. She had a light foreign made car that a big gust sent her swerving off the bridge. This accident spurred the addition of extra protection on the edge.

To which tv_is_over responds:

Mar 26, 2012
What rail protection? The bridge hasn’t changed since it opened. Same rail on the side that goes up about 3 or 4 feet.
1957 –
2000 –

(Note: these links no longer work. The Mackinac Bridge Authority—presumably to thwart would-be terrorists—has removed the photo album it once had on its website. Photographic evidence that nothing has changed can be found on other websites.)

Serenity lashes back at this correction:

Mar 26, 2012
looks like im mistaken, perhaps it was just more awareness of safe driving on the bridge in high winds conditions. Sorry, working off the vague memory of what my mom told me about her years ago.
edit- but cheers to you for wasting your time to prove me wrong to validate your asinine comments about something that effected my family deeply.

In other words, shame on you for pointing out that—just as skyscraper building codes did not change due to 9/11—the safeguards on the Mackinac Bridge did not change one bit after 1989.

Someone is monitoring Google groups as well for the Pluhar story, ready to jump with firsthand knowledge to make sure the mainstream account stays plausible. Just so happens that a forum member on alt.urban.folklore had gone over the Mackinac Bridge on the same day as Pluhar!

jon hawkins
it is very much possible. [i.e. for the wind alone to blow a car off a bridge] when i was about 15 my dad and i were travelling from the lower penninsula of Michigan to the upper, which means crossing the Mackinac bridge. we were in a van with about 6 other people and I remember it being blown all over the road when we hit open areas.
anywho, that same night a woman in her Yugo was blown off of the bridge. her car was picked up and tossed down into the lake below (R.I.P.) with out ever touching the railings or suspension cables. so it can happen, but…
1) she was in a tiny damned car.
2) there are portions of the Mackinac bridge that are metal grillwork rather than solid metal or pavement, which might have allowed an updraft to occur that wouldn’t on other overpasses or bridges.
btw: the Mackinac bridge’s speed limit is shown on digital signs so that it can be changed easily. the speed limit drops lower in windy/stormy weather.

In other words: don’t question the possibility that the wind could pick up a small car and drop it over the bridge. I myself nearly experienced it! And it just goes to show: don’t buy “a tiny damned car” … (the perennial refrain in every online discussion of the Pluhar incident).

… Haven’t we all seen this kind of “personal knowledge” shill-craft before in connection with more recent hoaxes? I will be amazed if none of them finds their way to POM, in fact.

Cui bono? Who benefitted from the Pluhar incident?

American auto companies.
The labor unions.
Ipso facto, the state of Michigan, economically.
The oil companies, of course, once America started buying gas guzzlers again.

The Mackinac Bridge Authority, paradoxically. After the accident they started providing an escort service—Bridge employees who will drive your car or truck across for you if you’re too scared. This entails a bigger staff and hence a bigger budget—always a boon for bureaucrats.

The Michigan State Police, whose officers got a ton of overtime and whose diving rescue team got a great experience outside of the normal training budget.

Misgivings, I Have a Few

One thing that has plagued me as I researched this essay is the Pluhar family. They are not crisis actors, for sure. They seem for all the world like real people who suffered a real grief. Both of Leslie Ann Pluhar’s parents died young, in their sixties. Pluhar’s father, George Pluhar, died in 2000 at the age of 64; her mother, Carolyn Marszalek, died in 2006 at the age of 69. Their obituaries are all remarkably terse.

Searches for Pluhar’s siblings—George Pluhar, Jr., Glen Pluhar, Linda Marshall, and Loretta Wilkie, yield results, but they have a remarkably small Web presence compared to the average Linked-In, Facebook-ing American. This was a family that avoided the spotlight while the incident was playing out, and who continues to keep a very low profile. Which is consistent with genuine bereavement—unlike, say, the Sandy Hook parents and 9/11 widows.

Which leads me to my final point:

I part company with other Truthers on the question of whether people actually died in 9/11 or terrorist truck attacks or mass shootings. I have zero problem believing that the devils masterminding these deceptions are willing to sacrifice innocent lives. We know that they don’t mind inciting wars around the world that slaughter hordes of civilians and children (as well as killing and maiming American soldiers). Why should they mind slaying a few fellow citizens? They will never be called to account for it. I’m sure that—just as with the Mafia—the capos arrange it so they have plausible deniability and only the foot soldiers end up with blood on their hands and time in prison.

It is entirely possible, in my mind that Leslie Pluhar did indeed die on September 22, 1989, the SSDI lacuna notwithstanding. In this version of the story, Pluhar suffered a fate similar to Jimmy Hoffa. At some point during the day, Mob muscle abducts her, drugs her, piles her back in her vehicle (sans seatbelt), smashes up her car with her in it, runs it up to a dock in Mackinaw City, loads the wreck discreetly on to a boat, sails to a spot under the bridge and dumps the car and driver there, hidden from view by the massive pillars supporting the Mackinac Bridge. There’s simply no other way that a car could end up where it did. Only cartoon physics would allow a one-ton object to halt its momentum mid-air and drop neatly into a slot between girders directly under the spot where it passed over a railing. There are coyotes in Michigan, but none named Wile E. …

For the Big Three, Big Labor, and Big Oil, one innocent life would not be too much to sacrifice for the loads of lucre they could make from convincing consumer to Buy American and Drive Big again.

Oh! You don’t think they are capable of such perfidy?  In that case, I have a Ford Pinto you might like to buy instead …


Addendum (4-11-18)  An attentive reader provided this article which pretty much seals the case that the wind could not have blown a Yugo over the railing.

36 thoughts on “Mackinac Machinations?

  1. I remember the Yugo and how people made fun of it, but I remember nothing of this incident. I had recently moved from Texas to San Jose, CA with my family and we were busy with new jobs, schools and settling in, anyway, I missed it… So I find it interesting that there are blog comments from 2012, well over 20 years later, that have such vivid memories of the incident and anecdotal memories of the victim. These commenters certainly sound like gatekeepers (or gatebots). Thanks Maarten for a very informative article…..oh, I also learned the definition of 2 new words….lacuna and putative.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Did anyone ever do a psyOp on the Pony?
    Seriously, I enjoyed this story (never heard of it before) because the Mackinac Bridge intimidated me back in the 80s when I drove across it for the first time. The view through the grates to the Strait is breathtaking and, well, very high. I have no doubt with your writing that this is a hoax, and I doubt the Yugo had any affect on the Big 3. As a matter of fact, it was an awful car that only the poorest would dare drive.As a symbol of all small cars, I’d agree that the story was probably useful to cast aspersions on small cars and help promote Big Steel. Please look at the vicsim report and label those that you think died please. As an aside, the doc about how this bridge was built is well worth the watch.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have read the vicsim report and have no quibble with it. But there a couple steps of logic missing between acknowledging that the published list of victims is fake and the conclusion that no one died on 9/11. One cannot demolish three whole buildings on short notice and also damage a whole district of a densely populated city while still guaranteeing that nobody might possibly have been where no one was supposed to be. Nor do I presume that, if some family had a member who did not return home after 9/11, any amount of complaining would have gotten that family member’s name on the official list of victims ever.

      I just don’t understand why it has become an article of faith among Truthers that no one died on 9/11. Anyway, the burden of proof falls on the claimer, and I don’t see how one can prove the no-victims claim without accepting as Gospel the official victim list, which acceptance beggars the original question!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Most truthers haven’t even heard of the report. Yes, the burden of proof falls on the perps to prove 2977 or whatever changing number they are using died that day. Their memorial just doesn’t cut it, full of candles instead of happy faces.


      2. “Anyway, the burden of proof falls on the claimer, and I don’t see how one can prove the no-victims claim without accepting as Gospel the official victim list, which acceptance beggars the original question!”

        I’ve read the above line so many times and I can’t figure out what you are saying??
        Why don’t YOU prove they died. Only proof they died is from the matrix.
        The matrix is all fake, it is hard to accept this but it hit me about 3 months ago that it is all fake when I was lying in bed sick watching CNN, ABC et al.

        two weeks ago trump/russia, week before trump son in law/russia, last week north korea nukes. come on man cant you see it is all fiction, nonsense


        1. I don’t claim that anyone died on 9/11.
          I also don’t claim that no one died on 9/11.
          Inasmuch as I make no claims, I have no burden of proof.

          What strikes me, though, is the vehemence directed against those who do not subscribe to the no-9/11-deaths claim. The level of passion is … abnormal. It transcends mere disagreement. It is like a religious rift.

          This business strikes me as a campaign tactic. It makes me suspicious. Like the “everything is fake” claim: it seems to emanate from certain people with certain agendas.

          Another tactic is to derail comment threads away from a productive discussion into bickering. No more ado about 9/11 deaths here, please. Take that up on your own blog.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. fair enough, just had to say what I had to say. I feel better now(lol)
            great article btw, so well researched, very entertaining read


  3. While I never used that bridge myself, I can offer a few observations from personal experience on the Mohave desert. Driving a 91 Toyota Tercel, a fine auto that somehow got a poor consumer reports review, I had a bad experience more than once in very high winds. Not 35 mph mind you, 60-80+ wind gusts. Once I was hit with one that almost literally ripped the steering wheel from my hands. Luckily I was using both. But this was far beyond 35. way farther. But my car never left the ground. And in high winds it would be difficult to go very fast anyway in a sub compact. Yeppers, I call bullshit on the official story. No f”n way. And besides, this is small potatoes compared to some of the others we have deconstructed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I researched this story more and more, the thought that nagged at me was: “Just how gullible do they think we are? A car got blown off a bridge by a stiff breeze, then dropped neatly into a slot between girders on the side of the bridge???”

      The answer is—completely gullible. It’s amazing what we have all, in the past, swallowed as truth, just because it was printed in a paper or a book or pronounced on TV by a solemn news anchor. For those of us who have learned to swear off our gullibility, the next question is: how far should our skepticism run? It is a fine line to walk between reasonable skepticism and rampant paranoia. I try to respect that distinction in my writings.


  4. The interesting thing is that the 70’s oil crisis looks artificial. They probably wanted to create an equilibrium between US, European and Japanese car manufacturing (and other related industries). Industrialization of South Korea was probably another important factor (the 2 Korean countries seem to be important psy-op targets).The expansion of the welfare system was probably another factor, due to the lay-offs. After they achieved certain things they started another good American cycle that probably ended with the 2008 crisis.


    1. The first stage in the “oil crisis” was the invention of OPEC, a long-running hoax. The object, or maybe one object, was to run up oil prices. OPEC was the tool used to act as a shield behind which Exxon and friends could act without blowback. They blamed it on dirty rotten Arabs.


      1. Yeah, the arabs weren’t pissed at Israel or the US’s support of same, it was all Exxon’s fault. Get off the crack pipe.


  5. Very well written, Maarten. I don’t know the answer, but know that any physicist can work up the wind speed necessary to lift a 2000 pound vehicle and flip it. They can calculate thrust for rockets and payloads, so surely the math is within easy reach. Assume there is a windsail effect, as the car is large and flat underneath. Even with that one would assume the wind speed would have to happen only once in history and affect only that one car.

    It does remind of a funny story about liberal Boulder Colorado, while we lived there. Funny because no one got hurt. A “microburst” hit a hillside and knocked down a large oak tree. It fell out on to Broadway, striking and disabling two Priuses. In any other city it would have been two Chevies or pickup trucks, but in Boulder it was two Priuses. Microbursts do indeed pack enough punch to pick up a light vehicle and flip it up and over a railing. But they only happen in strong thunderstorms, and their force is downward and out, not up. Nothing in your article mentions that.

    Two similarities to the John Denver plane crash were apparent – use of a cadaver. Alcohol does form by natural processes in cadavers. it could be that if the body were submerged for eight days, some natural accumulation of alcohol took place. I suspect a cadaver was used for the Denver accident. Though clean and sober and showing no other signs of alcohol consumption, the corpse had a buildup of alcohol in the liver.

    And, $555,000. Denver changed his wing registration to JD555NC. “555” in numerology is an indication that change is about to happen in a person’s life. Good or bad does not matter.

    Anyway, I love this kind of writing, this kind of work. I know you have many hours in it. Well done.


  6. Thanks, Mark. I wondered about the microburst possibility too. But with research I learned, as reported above, that skies were clear at the time of the incident. I have not experienced or heard of microbursts happening in such conditions.

    I was hoping that someone who knew more about numerology than I would weigh in on the settlement numbers. Is it usual for siblings to get money in a wrongful death suit? And exactly equal to parents? That struck me as odd.

    There are a few other suspicious details that I left out. Because prolixity. I agree with the commenter above who said this is small potatoes compared to other events discussed here at POM. The importance of this incident, I would argue, is that it gives reason to suspect corporations instead of “Intelligence” (whoever that is) for some of these events.


    1. “Small potatoes” is not a concern, in my view. Real and fake events spawn bigger events. The move away from small cars was a big event, and your research here explained in part how it was motivated, if not outright incited. We need more of this, and I keep hoping that every time a commenter suggests we look into this or that hoax or fake death, that the commenter comes to realize that he or she has the necessary tools to do the legwork. I want to be a small part of a large and growing community.


    2. Excellent excellent excellent investigative work, Maarten! And a really nice write-up.

      In my view, the same people who really control corporations behind the scenes are same people behind ‘Intelligence.’


      1. Thank you, Josh. The case I make runs a little long, and I appreciate the gift of time from those who follow it through to the end. The devil is in the details proves true in this incident.

        Curious sidenote. During vacation time in Michigan I did some research on this story by visiting a local library. When the librarian who was helping me work the microfilm machine (to view old newspapers), when he realized what I was looking into, brought me into the basement and took me to a computer that accesses a database of old newspapers electronically. He sat with me for 45 minutes finding articles, copied them, and then moved them to a thumbdrive which he gave me. While I didn’t divulge my conspiratorial slant on the story, I had a feeling that he figured it out right away and did his utmost to help me. He even suggested I visit the archives in Lansing and maybe try a FOIA request to see the files on this case. So I sense there are others who remember the Yugo incident with incredulity.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Even if a burst of wind could pass vertically upward through road grating, which doesn’t sound very probable, the force of it would be reduced by the material making up the grate. So maybe we could generously allow for an effective 20 mph wind. Ridiculous.

    They get away with this because people don’t have time to pay attention to details, have very little understanding of science due to our horrible education system, and have too many other problems in their lives to think about things like this. Most that do start to see it have a spouse who is likely to melt down if their social standing is threatened in any way. Or a boss, or preacher, or friends who will pull them back into line.

    Every decent scientist or engineer has to see through things like this, so keeping it stuffed in is adding a stress load that is becoming more and more unbearable. We’re seeing the Trump gambit played out in the Charlottesville psyop, putting the same screws to every white, Christian, heterosexual.

    Our minds are developed by mimicking what we’re surrounded by. They develop the baseline of what is “normal” from that, and it’s reinforced through years of conditioning. Holding together all the blatant contradictions from petty hypocrisies of our social environment to ever increasing nonsense and fear mongering from the media and government while still functioning with families and co-workers and others in the same boat takes every available resource. All it takes is one prick of truth from seeing through one of the endless fake events to burst the balloon and crash the whole house of cards (which is a positive move in the long run, but feels like the end of the world to the mind).

    This is the basis of the “defense mechanism” that won’t “put on the glasses” as so well illustrated in “They Live.” It will fight to the end to preserve that feeling of “normal.” It’s controlling and moving this baseline “norm” which is the goal of the “hidden hand” in pulling all these ridiculous psyops. Those of us that start to break out are outliers and insignificant in numbers, and can be co-opted or misdirected if we start to create too many waves. The shills just add to the confusion and drive more people back into the emotional safety of the crowd.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Maarten, great post, but I have to part ways with you on the abduction and murder trope at the end. It’s my opinion that the creeps don’t break laws to massage the collective mood. They don’t have to and that makes recruitment easy. No crime, no stress, no danger of being caught, tried and sentenced to life or death. Discreet killers, I imagine, are hard to come by and mad, bad and dangerous to know. They are sick on a level we normies can’t comprehend. This kind of personality usually lives in jails and psych wards, not on a rolodex in a Virginia basement office. Expensive and dangerous is easily avoided by control of the coroner and the press. Many will agree that those two elements are securely under the control of the mind benders wherever corporate fascists do business (everywhere).
    I would back the migrating bird/reassignment scenario. This asset named for this op as Pluhar establishes herself as a “real” person for post mortem recall by innocent dupes, takes some easy to get jobs for further establishment of her reality, and leaves a paper trail. She’s reassigned after the car is placed in position under water. What? Navy Seals masquerading as rescue and recovery workers pull up the corpse car (with or without an actual corpse)? Then off to the coroner’s office and a prewritten statement from Langley at the request of corporate intel managers appears for the record. No body needed, really.
    So, no SSDI listing and maybe no death certificate, issuing a phony one being and actual crime. Maybe there is a little larcenous ink spilled, but maybe the death certificate was “sealed” as part of the overly confusing “settlement” to the now vanished “family”.
    Literature and film majors graduate in droves year after year. Some very likely will write anything for anyone, no questions asked. No crime in that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I can imagine the kids that used to pull wings off of insects being great assets for Langley, screwing over their fellow man. Probably not that hard to find resentiment filled losers happy to do whatever they’re told to get one over on their “betters.”


      1. My point is that they do not need those types at all. Why mess with weirdos when words and doctored media do all the necessary damage? As that great Roman wit Virgil (Sollozzo) explained: Blood is a big expense.


        1. Yes, didn’t mean complete weirdos, but there must be some psychological profile that they draw from. What kind of people can live with knowing they’re creating such angst and pain in their fellow men? Can’t believe they’re that compartmentalized where they have regular folks not realizing what’s going on. No doubt they’re mostly cowards, hiding behind a cubicle desk.

          I agree that they don’t need to kill people for these events and rarely, if ever, do. Just trying to wrap my head around who we are dealing with.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. There are people … creeps, but they tend, as I see it, to engage in one-on-one violence … rapes, gunfire, theft to satisfy cravings for drugs or alcohol. Cruelty to beasts is particularly disturbing. But this idea that there are people who willingly murder complete strangers for the sheer joy if of it is an Intelligence invention. I do see a look in people’s eyes, usually men, that is “lean and hungry,” as if they would be late night visitors who want to steal my stuff. Usually, tattoos and jewlery, nose rings, ear rings, go with that look. Creepy.


    2. Thanks, Tyrone. After further reflection, I am inclined to agree with you. There are lots of little details around the margins of this incident that point towards jiggery-pokery. For instance, it struck me in the middle of last night like a thunderbolt: if Pluhar and Burton were less than six months from a wedding, how is she meeting his mother for only the first time that weekend?

      I could go on, but enough for now. I expect there will be a follow-up post in the future.


  9. As a born and raised Michigander, I can verify that crossing the Might Mac can be harrowing. The wind and the combination of the height and narrowness of the lanes is un-nerving. Can a Yugo be blown right off it? Ummm, no. This used to crop up in the news every couple of years to keep it in our minds. The Yugo, a tremendous failure in the US market due to it’s extraordinary shittiness, only succeeded in being blown off our shores, but the attack on the small car was a success without vilifying directly the Japanese Big 4 or VW, as these companies had clout. The op worked as a sort of delaying action; the US Big 3 were able to keep the cheap, high MPG cars at bay while they built up the initial work-around (light trucks/SUV) and sought partnerships w/ the Japanese and Korean manufacturers to compete. It is still, to this day, GM corporate policy that small cars don’t make money, despite decades of contrary evidence. Great article Maarten!


  10. Nicely and Neatly done. Thank you, Sir. An almost flawless piece. I found it thanks to the recent WP redesign/makeover. May I ask you what interested you in it so much to remember this incident, invest time and resources researching it and writing up about it? Cannot wait for the follow-up post you promised. This is good stuff. If this is small potatoes, I say it’s Fingerling potatoes.


    1. Thank you. I happened to have a one-year teaching position in Michigan when this happened, and it struck me as odd at the time, even though I had never been over the bridge. Then last summer vacation travel took me over the Mackinac Bridge myself, and I remembered the outlandish claim that a car could get blown off. The more I dug into the story, the more it looked like one of the hoaxes we see so often these days.

      Since the piece first ran, I have had interesting conversations with a retired employee of the Michigan Department of Transportation and a forensic scientist for the Michigan State Police. Waiting on a few more issues before the follow-up. Needless to say, nothing so far inclines me to make a retraction …


      1. Thank you for your answer, Mr. Rossaert. I just read the sidenote about the librarian and the basement. Very interesting indeed. Looking forward to the follow-up, doesn’t matter if it’s after Christmas. Again, nicely done.


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