POOR HOPEWELL. First that small Virginia city was rocked by the Kepone catastrophe. Then, on Thursday morning, a large tanker went out of control and smashed into the city's only bridge across the James River. Luckily, no one was killed. Unluckily, a section of the bridge is now resting precariously athwart the ship. Until that span has been shored up in a week or two, one wrong move or even major waves might shift the wreckage enough to bring down the whole bridge.

No one yet knows how long repairs are going to take. It could be weeks or months or years. Meanwhile, the closest bridge across the James is up at Richmond, over 20 miles away. If nothing else can be arranged, a lot of people are going to have to detour 45 miles or more, using congested roads, to reach their jobs, stores, doctors and friends. Commerce and industry are bound to be disrupted - and this town of 24,000 can ill afford the economic loss.

Hopewell will manage, Mayor Helida Traina says. She thinks that, in the wake of the Kepone experience, the community has become more determined than ever to improve its lot. As signs of hope in Hopewell, she cites the building of a $40-million wastewater treatment plant, planning for a major neighborhood center, and renewal of downtown.

The town does not need pity. What it does need, to maintain its momentum, is a way to cross the James. The state highway department is looking into possibilities for temporary ferry service, but a spokesman didn't sound too optimistic Saturday. One would think they need to look-no farther than Norfolk for some technical assistance and perhaps a boat, a barge, or even a temporary bridge. The Navy surely has some craft that could be brought upriver - gently - and put to work.