He was in his mid 30s and lived on the Eastern Shore. He got a job that meant he would have to commute to Washington each day--across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. One morning, midway across, his hands got sweaty, his heart beat wildly, he felt faint, confused, disoriented--terrified.
The next day, he asked his wife to go with him. Again, panic. His wife tried handcuffing his wrists to the steering wheel. She tried blindfolding him while she drove. Finally, the only way he could cross the bridge was locked in the trunk of the car.
"I've never met him, thank God," says Jerry Hunter, 39, a trooper with the Maryland Toll Facilities Police. "But I've seen some just as bad."
Hunter has been working the bridge for 16 years, going over and back six or seven times a day. On at least one of those daily trips he will ferry a phobic: a driver who freezes at the tollbooth or starts to back down the bridge against traffic.
Last year Hunter and the other two police on duty chauffeured 1,041 phobics across the bridge, including one persistent fellow who was driven over and back 24 times. The police say it's the only service of its kind in the country. They get men and women, all ages--even a truck driver or two. Sometimes the phobic will lie on the floor of the car or across the back seat. Some want the police driver to keep up a constant stream of chatter. Others tell him not to talk at all. Some whimper, some cry, some hold their breath. The police call them "Drive Overs," or D.O.'s
"This lady with a U-Haul was the worst," says Hunter, steering his cruiser onto the bridge. "She was driving down from New York to Washington. Her husband told her to stay on I-95, but she got off at the wrong exit and wound up at the bridge. She got a quarter of the way up the westbound span and just stopped. When I got to the truck, she was screaming and crying. She was hysterical. I tried for 15 minutes to calm her down. Once I did, I got behind the wheel and started across. She was okay until her kids started yelling: 'Mommy, Mommy, look at all the boats waaaaay down there!' They were doing it on purpose. She started screaming all over again."
The first span of the
Bridge was built in
1952, the second in
1973. It is 4.3 miles long, with twin towers reaching 379 feet above the water. It handles 10.8 million vehicles a year and takes about five minutes to drive across. Unless you're phobic. Then, it takes forever.
"One woman," says Hunter, looking up at the tangle of wires helping hold the bridge up, "said it felt like everything was closing in on her."
Indeed, the structure encompasses so many phobias, it's hard to tell what scares people most: heights, open spaces, falling, driving or traffic jams. Or fear of the whole thing collapsing like a scene from an earthquake movie. But the overwhelming fear, experts say, is loss of control --that somehow, midway, you'll do something crazy-- like drive off the edge.
"Can't do it," says Hunter, adjusting his black aviator sunglasses. The rails are designed so autos cannot barrel through them. "Although you could flip over the rails at a high rate of speed."
No one has died on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge--at least not of fright. One man did have a heart attack on the bridge, but he had a history of heart problems.
"We had another woman who got two-tenths of a mile up the span, then started to back up against traffic," says Hunter, shaking his head. "And one day we got a call for a disabled vehicle. This lady had stopped her car in the middle of the bridge. When we got there, her knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel." They had to pry her fingers loose before they could drive her across.
Hunter is nearly to the top of the bridge. "This really scares them," he says, as the tires scrape and squirm noisily over the metal grates in the center, and highest, span. You can look down through the open grates and see the water, 212 feet below. "I tell them not to look down."
The center, Hunter says, is where most D.O.'s start to sweat. "But I think it's the safest part of the bridge." A lot of D.O.'s ask him to drive in the center lane. "They don't like the sides."
A phobia is an irra tional fear, really the
fear of fear, the fear
of what one might do
"Facing certain death would have been a lot easier for me than going over that bridge," says Gilbert Hill, 36, a Pepco supervisor who was a Bay Bridge phobic for eight years before getting treatment last year.
"I avoided the bridge for 15 years," says Betty McMahon, 53, a Leesburg housewife. "One day, going over to Rehoboth, we were on the bridge and I became deathly afraid. Just this sense of overwhelming fear. My youngest son was in the back seat at the time. I told him to be quiet, that we just had to get over the bridge. He said, 'Mommy, guess what? The bridge is falling down.'
"Well, I don't know how I made it over to the other side. But for the next 15 years, I drove at least two hours out of my way to avoid that bridge."
When MacMahon finally sought help for her phobia, she and her counselor spent a day driving across the bridge. "The woman at the tollbooth thought we were crazy," she says.
Jerilyn Ross, senior clinical associate of The Phobia Program of Washington, has a fear of heights. That makes her acrophobic. But she drives across the bridge anyway. "I feel I have to set an example, so I do it. With great difficulty." The feeling, she says, "is that you're out there in the middle of nowhere. You feel so damn vulnerable . . . Underneath it all is a feeling of being trapped."No exit. Once you're on, it's either go over or go off. There are no shoulders on the bridge. No rest stops. No scenic lookouts.
Officer Hunter laughs: "I'm scared of heights myself, but I just make myself do it."
"Of course, I don't tell that to the D.O.'s. I made the mistake once of telling that to a lady. The whole time over the bridge she never took her eyes off me. She thought I was crazier than her."