By Donna St. George and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 11, 2008
Beachgoers and other motorists spent several frustrating hours stuck in traffic backups of more than 10 miles on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge yesterday in the aftermath of a deadly crash that sent a tractor-trailer hurtling through a concrete Jersey wall and into the water below, killing the truck driver.
The three-vehicle crash, shortly before 4 a.m., also sent two women in a 1997 Chevrolet Camaro to a hospital, officials said. It closed down the older, two-lane eastbound span of the bridge during popular beach-commute hours and raised safety questions about the 56-year-old structure.
Officials reopened one lane of the eastbound bridge about 8:15 p.m., but almost three hours later, long backups remained. Officials said motorists should expect delays during this morning's rush hour.
The damaged Jersey wall, with its 10- to 15-foot gap, was being repaired, with a more permanent restoration to come later.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board arrived at the scene yesterday as state engineers worked to inspect the bridge's structural integrity, said Cpl. Jonathan Green of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police.
The Bay Bridge, which is part of U.S. Route 50/301, has two spans -- a newer, three-lane westbound bridge and an older, two-lane eastbound bridge.
The crash involved the 18-wheeler and two passenger cars. Neither of the two occupants of the second car, a 2005 Toyota Prius, was hospitalized, officials said.
State officials did not release details about the cause of the crash but said the driver of the 18-wheeler, which was filled with refrigerated chicken, was headed west when the truck veered across a lane of oncoming traffic and struck the Jersey wall about a half-mile from the Kent Island side of the bridge, plunging about 20 to 35 feet into the water. At the time, traffic in both directions was using the eastbound span while the westbound span was closed for maintenance.
The truck driver was identified last night as John R. Short, 57, of Willards, Md. His body was retrieved by divers.
Green identified the Camaro's injured driver as Candy Lynn Baldwin, 19, of Millington, Md. Her passenger was identified as Trisha Ann Michele Carrigan, 21, of Quincy, Calif. Baldwin remained in the hospital last night. Carrigan was treated and released, police said.
The driver of the second car was identified as Seung Won Hong, 41, of Springfield, and the passenger as Ho Yoo, 42, of Alexandria.
Green said it was thought to be the first time that a vehicle had plummeted from the bridge into the bay. "Everyone I've talked to so far, this is the first they've heard," he said.
The truck, owned by Mountaire Farms, a poultry processing company based in Selbyville, Del., was headed west, apparently to markets. Company spokesman Roger Marino said he could not provide details about the driver or his driving record. Information on the company's safety record was not available last night.
The truck's trailer, still intact in about 10 feet of water, could be seen by passing motorists yesterday.
"It is a tragic loss for our company," Marino said. "It's a close-knit company, and we really feel for the family."
Ted Lopatkiewicz, spokesman for the NTSB, said the federal agency had sent two investigators to the scene and would be looking at both the bridge and the operator. The damage to the structure will be examined, he said, as well as the design, "and whether it had any impact on the outcome of the accident," he said.
Motorists interviewed yesterday raised questions about the Jersey walls and how much impact they are built to withstand.
Lopatkiewicz said he had no information on the type of Jersey walls that are part of the Bay Bridge. But he said that overall, "most Jersey walls you see are made for automobiles."
John B. Townsend II, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said his organization has raised concerns about Jersey walls and using two-way traffic on a single span of the bridge.
"The margin for error is too slim," he said. According to AAA's research, he said, "in 70 percent of fatal crashes since 1952, two-way traffic was being employed on the bridge at the time of the fatal crash."
The issue regarding two-way traffic on the span arose last year after a May 10 crash on what is normally the westbound span. A trailer became detached from the sport-utility vehicle that was pulling it, causing a seven-vehicle collision that killed three people. Officials said two-way traffic was not a factor in that crash.
The bridge, long known to Washingtonians as the route to Eastern Shore beaches, is now used by many commuters who live on the eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay.
Yesterday's crash aggravated the already heavy traffic that is part of beach weekends on the popular route to the shore towns of Rehoboth Beach, Bethany Beach, Dewey Beach and Ocean City.
With one span of the bridge closed, traffic had been routed to the newer, three-lane westbound bridge. Delays stretched as far as 13.7 miles westbound at one point last night.
Maggie Jones, a waitress at Hemingway's on Kent Island, said the unrelenting traffic jam completely changed her day at the restaurant. "Nobody's here. . . . Usually we're totally packed," she said. But with the backup, "nobody's getting off [the road] either way," she said. "I have a lot of locals sitting on the grass out front, just watching the traffic."
Jeffrey Poersch, 45, of Alexandria said his plans to get to Bethany Beach by 9:30 a.m. and enjoy a full day at the beach with his three 8-year-old daughters were foiled. The group got stuck in a 90-minute backup, took a breakfast side trip, made multiple calls to a bridge hotline and finally decided to just drive the usual course -- for as long as it took.
They arrived at the beach at 2:15, and so did the rain. "Our beach day is wiped out," Poersch said.
Poersch said that as he drove past the crash scene, "my thought was, 'That's not supposed to happen. You're not supposed to be able -- with any force -- to leave the bridge,' " he said.
Michael Herndon, 41, of the District said that he and a friend were returning from a weekend in Rehoboth and that it took them three hours and 45 minutes to travel from the Route 50/301 split to the west side of the bridge. His friend missed his 4 p.m. flight at Reagan National Airport. "I've been going to Rehoboth for a long time," he said. "I've never seen it that bad."
At Rehoboth Beach, the traffic backup changed vacation plans in unexpected ways.
Art Beal, manager of Boardwalk Plaza Hotel, said one guest called him to say that "she left her house in Reston at 10 a.m. and she was just hoping she could get here. She had been stuck there for five hours."
At the Breakers Hotels & Suites, just up the road, the front desk offered printouts of alternate routes for people trying to go home. "It's a long ways around," said Jerry Smith, a front desk clerk, of a route that directed people through Wilmington, Del. At check-in time, 3 p.m., only 10 of the registered guests had shown up.
The four-mile-long eastbound span dates to 1952; the westbound span opened in 1973. The older span was last renovated in 1988, when it was redecked, officials said. An estimated 27 million vehicles use the bridge annually. The bridge rises as high as 186 feet.
Motorists can check the Bay Bridge Web site, at http://www.baybridge.com, for information about traffic conditions.
Staff writers Kristen Mack, Martin Weil, Eric M. Weiss and Robert Thomson contributed to this report.