Jumper on Bridge Causes Gridlock
By Alice Reid and Patricia Davis
An Alexandria man who stood on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge for more than five hours before jumping off created massive traffic tie-ups throughout the Washington area yesterday as police closed the bridge for the duration of the incident, bringing much of the Capital Beltway to a standstill by evening rush hour.
Police said the 32-year-old man, apparently upset because of a domestic dispute, climbed onto the wall at the edge of the span about 1:07 p.m. and told construction workers on the ground below that he planned to jump.
At 6:45 p.m., after police negotiators failed to talk him into surrendering, D.C. police shot him in the leg with a beanbag bullet and he leapt into the water 50 feet below. The man, identified as Ivin L. Pointer, of the 200 block of Evans Road, was picked up by a D.C. police boat and taken to Washington Hospital Center, where he was reported in fair condition. He had no obvious injuries but complained of neck pain. D.C. police said last night that a mental evaluation was planned.
The closing of the Wilson Bridge, which 190,000 vehicles cross each day, caused backups as long as 20 miles on the Beltway and infuriated commuters who found themselves stuck in traffic for several hours.
The situation also illustrated how fragile the area's overburdened road system has become, dependent on the uninterrupted operation of a few major highways and river crossings. A lone man standing in one spot created chaos, leaving commuters and travelers on the East Coast's busiest north-south route with few alternatives.
Within an hour, Beltway traffic leading to the bridge was backed up eight miles in both directions. Police then closed all the entrance ramps to the Beltway's outer loop between the bridge and Interstate 395 to clear out the jam on the Virginia side, but that caused gridlock on other stretches of highway. By evening, Beltway traffic was stalled in both directions from Gallows Road to College Park and along much of I-395, I-295 and Route 50.
Veteran radio traffic reporter Bob Marbourg described the traffic jams as "without comparison."
"This just gives us a taste of what life will be like if this bridge crumbles," he added, referring to the ongoing but so far unsuccessful regional effort to replace the aging bridge.
Alexandria and D.C. police, who were both involved in the efforts to talk Pointer out of jumping, said they decided to close the bridge to traffic because they were worried Pointer might have a gun. Although Pointer had no weapon on him when he was pulled aboard a rescue boat seconds after hitting the water, police said they still do not know whether he had one while on the bridge.
"If you have a man threatening to kill himself and he's armed with a gun, you have to close the bridge," said D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. "It may be inconvenient to travelers, but it's better than getting shot by someone is who mentally unstable at the time. It would be irresponsible of us not to close the bridge and put innocent people in harm's way."
Motorists trapped in the gridlock were nevertheless angry and frustrated.
Kellie Goddard, 20, a college student in Arlington, called her mother from an Alexandria pay phone near the Beltway, begging for advice on how to make it back to her home in Clinton.
"My mother told me told me to get a hotel room, but I don't want to stay here," Goddard said. "This is just crazy."
Matthew Prohaska, 33, like many other commuters, wondered why authorities had allowed the suicide threat to create so much disruption.
"I can't believe they can't do something about this, said Prohaska, a carpenter trying to make it home to Prince George's County from a job near Tysons Corner. "Why can't they just put an airbag underneath the jumper and push him off? He wouldn't get hurt and it would get him off the bridge. What a day!"
Drivers struggled to find alternate routes to avoid the bridge, but the few choices quickly became overloaded. From the north, many motorists took New York Avenue into Washington, then crammed into the Third Street Tunnel and onto the Southwest Freeway heading toward Virginia. Others stayed on the Beltway headed toward the American Legion Bridge, bringing traffic there almost to a halt.
Local roads in the Springfield area were clogged with traffic, as was I-295 through Anacostia. And along gridlocked portions of I-95, desperate drivers left their cars and relieved themselves in wooded areas, police said.
In the past, accidents have forced the closure of the Wilson Bridge and snarled Beltway traffic, but the shutdowns have been relatively short.
An incident on the 14th Street Bridge in 1994 shut down much of Washington's morning commuter rush. An unemployed journalist, Abubakar Sadiq Ibrahim, 36, who said he wanted to see the daughter who lived with his estranged wife, crashed his Mercedes-Benz into a retaining wall on the span and threatened to explode a bomb. A black canvas bag on his front seat turned out to contain books and clothes.
Pointer worked for a computer contractor and was recently involved in a software project at the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund in Washington, according to an IMF spokesman.
He was arrested Oct. 26 by Alexandria police on charges of assaulting Charlene Williamson, the mother of his 4-year-old son, and released on a $750 bond. Williamson was granted a temporary order requiring Pointer to stay away from her and their child, and they were due to return to court next week for a hearing on whether the order should be extended to two years.
Alexandria police said they had contact with Pointer on Tuesday and thought he might be suicidal. They said they had alerted other police departments to use caution in any dealings with him.
Pointer said he had tried to kill himself recently with rat poison and with a gun, sources said.
Neighbors of the home on Evans Lane that Pointer and Williamson shared said they were well aware of the couple's domestic troubles. A woman who lived across the street said that Pointer came to her door last week and told her that Williamson had left and taken all of his checks and credit cards. "He was just distraught," said the woman, who would not give her name. "When I saw that somebody was on the bridge, I said it must be him. He didn't know which way to turn."
During most of his standoff with police on the bridge, Pointer paced in circles, occasionally stopping to put on his dark leather jacket or take it off or to dangle his legs over the side.
Lamont Hampton, 35, a construction worker standing on the ground below the bridge, was among the first to notice Pointer.
"He just looked down at me and said, `Say a prayer for me, brother,' " Hampton said.
Police used four negotiators to talk to Pointer and also put snipers in the bridge tower.
Authorities obtained a taped statement from Williamson and her child and played it for Pointer at one point. That seemed to calm Pointer, who for the most part was agitated and became increasingly cold as the day wore on, said Terrance Gainer, executive assistant D.C. police chief.
Throughout the day, "he was up, he was down, he was standing, he was crying," Gainer said.
Pointer stayed in one spot on the wall most of the time. When he finally started walking along the pavement of the bridge toward the Alexandria side, police decided to rush him, Gainer said.
Police with nets moved closer to Pointer just before a D.C. police sniper shot him in the leg with the nonlethal "beanbag," about the size of a handball. Pointer appeared startled by the shot, then jumped up on the ledge and into the river, Gainer said. He was quickly fished out by rescue workers and was conscious and talking to police officers as they put him on a stretcher.
"It didn't go down perfectly, these things never do," Gainer said. "Clearly he was agitated about his life's situation. . . . The negotiators really tried to empathize with him. We came very close to this being a perfect rescue."
Staff writers Maria Elena Fernandez, Brooke A. Masters, Jacqueline L. Salmon, Alan Sipress, Leef Smith, Jackie Spinner and Avis Thomas-Lester contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company