By Eric M. Weiss and James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
The deadly crash that closed one span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge this weekend unfolded in a few frightening moments, as a swerving car sent a tractor-trailer banging against both sides of the narrow bridge, then riding along the top of the bridge's railing for 100 feet before it tumbled over the side, according to officials and witnesses.
Yesterday, as a contractor began removing sections of the truck from shallow waters near the bay's eastern shore, officials said the truck's impact had been extremely violent, and that that caused a rare failure. The truck punched a 10-foot opening in the bridge's reinforced-concrete railing, which is designed to survive even the most forceful collisions.
Authorities reopened the bridge's eastbound span at 4 p.m. yesterday, with the gap in the railing patched by a steel beam.
A spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police said yesterday that he would not discuss details of the crash, including any theories about its cause.
Candy Lynn Baldwin, 19, the driver of one of the three vehicles involved in the accident, said in a phone interview from her hospital bed that she had fallen asleep while driving east on the bridge. Baldwin said she had left her mother's wedding Saturday in Baltimore and was returning to her home in the Eastern Shore town of Millington when she nodded off about 4 a.m. Sunday.
"I don't remember it happening because I fell asleep at the wheel, but when I woke up we were in an accident," she said from Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. She said she remembers regaining consciousness in her car, a 1997 Chevrolet Camaro. "I just couldn't breathe or move my legs," she said.
On Sunday, she said, doctors treated her for spleen and liver injuries. She said she was scheduled for surgery again yesterday afternoon to repair two broken kneecaps.
"Most likely I'll be able to walk again," she said. "Then I'll have to go through rehab."
Baldwin said that at the time of the crash, she was exhausted.
"It was 4 a.m., and I had been up late preparing for the wedding and picking up people from the airport the night before," she said. The passenger in her car was Baldwin's cousin, Trish Ann Michele Carrigan, 21, visiting from California for the wedding. Carrigan was treated and released after the accident, authorities said.
Truck driver John R. Short, 57, of Willards, Md., was killed in the accident. He was hauling a load of refrigerated chicken for Mountaire Farms poultry company in Selbyville, Del.
Two people in the third car involved in the accident said they saw a black sports car drifting toward the center line of the two-lane bridge, which was carrying eastbound and westbound traffic. The Bay Bridge's other, three-lane westbound span was closed for maintenance.
Seung Won Hong, 41, of Springfield was driving east in a Toyota Prius, headed for a fishing trip in Delaware with his brother-in-law, Ho Yoo, 42, of Alexandria. He said the impact came "only seconds after I noticed the Camaro was strange," he said. "Then, sure enough, it had drifted too far into the oncoming traffic."
"Neither the truck nor I could have done anything [to avoid the crash], especially with the lanes being so narrow," Hong said.
The car hit the truck, he said, and then the truck swerved and jackknifed into his lane. He said the trailer barely scraped the left rear quarter of his Prius as it passed. Then, Hong said, he watched through his rearview mirror as the truck hit the bridge's railing, slid along it and then toppled into the bay.
"There was debris all around me" after the crash, he said. "The truck's axles were still left on the top of the bridge behind me. Debris from the Camaro was in front of me. It was like a bomb had gone off."
Geoff Kolberg, chief engineer with the Maryland Transportation Authority, said the truck crossed the road and struck the opposite barrier with tremendous energy.
"It was a lot of force: 80,000 pounds of truck hitting at a severe angle going at least 55 mph," he said. He said that the bridge's railings, called parapets, were rebuilt in the 1980s to meet modern safety standards. They are made of reinforced concrete, then anchored into the bridge deck, Kolberg said.
In addition, bridge engineers said, the concrete barriers are designed to redirect vehicles back to the roadway. Generally, when vehicles sideswipe the barriers, their tires ride up on the barriers' angled bottom before being directed back onto the road. Even if they are hit at a more direct angle, the barriers are supposed to be strong enough to prevent an average vehicle from smashing through.
But, in this case, the truck's impact took out a 10-foot section and displaced an 8- to 10-foot section.
"It's very unlikely that this type of fatal accident would happen in most circumstances," said Ronaldo T. "Nick" Nicholson of the Virginia Department of Transportation, chief official in charge of building the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators are looking into the accident. For now, the hole has been patched with a steel beam attached to the rest of the bridge, making it at least as strong as the sections that are gone or damaged, Maryland officials said.
One of the first responders at the scene said yesterday that, at first, rescuers did not realize the truck had gone into the water. Firefighter Denny Lewis, a 10-year veteran of the Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department, said rescuers were focused on helping the passengers in the Camaro when they spotted something odd.
On the bridge's deck, there was an axle and a tire from a tractor-trailer. But there was no tractor-trailer.
"For about the first couple minutes, we didn't really realize that the truck was over," Lewis said.
The wreck, on a bridge that some drivers find harrowing under any circumstances, caused tie-ups that confounded beach-bound travelers and other motorists for miles. Many spent several frustrating hours in backups of more than 10 miles on both sides of the bridge.
Beginning about 11 a.m. yesterday, contractors hired by Mountaire Farms removed the truck's cab and trailer from the bay, said Scott Winslow, a search and rescue specialist with the U.S. Coast Guard in Baltimore.
Winslow said the truck posed little environmental risk to the bay. At most, he said, it held 300 gallons of diesel fuel, which would have had minimal impact even if all of it had leaked out. He said he did not know how much fuel was lost.
"There was a visible sheen that came off, but there was nothing that could be cleaned up" because there was so little of it, Winslow said.
Staff writer Matt Zapotosky and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.