A Virginia man was killed and two others were critically injured last night when the car in which they were riding plunged 10 feet down an embankment on the south approach to the 14th Street bridge, struck a tree and caught fire.
All three were pinned inside the car, which had to be pried and sawed open by members of rescue teams before they were able to reach the men.
The driver was pronounced dead at the scene, and his two passengers were flown by a U.S. Park Police helicopter to the Medstar unit of Washington Hospital Center. Both were listed in "very critical" condition early today with burns and head injuries.
The dead man was identified as Bernard Bowens, 26, of 14476 Duran Dr. in Dale City. Police said one of the injured passengers was Bowens' brother, William, 24, of the same address. The second was identified as Phillip Hines, 26, of 2805 Bellehaven Dr., Alexandria.
Police said the car went out of control in the right lane on the ramp that curves around the Jefferson Memorial grounds and leads to the southbound span of the bridge. It narrowly missed a metal guardrail, flipped and skidded down the embankment into the tree at a point in East Potomac Park near where Ohio Drive passes under the approach ramps to the bridge, police said.
"I have never seen a car squished like that," said a 37-year-old jogger who was trotting toward Washington along the bridge when the car careened off the roadway. "It was just wrapped around the tree. It was incredible.
"The car was on its side, totally wrapped around the tree, like it was made out of clay," said the jogger, who asked not to be identified.
Police investigators said the car was traveling at "excessive speed" when it skidded on a wet section of pavement and went over the bank and into the tree. Police said the fire began minutes after impact and flames engulfed the interior of the auto.
D.C. firefighters arrived while the flames were still visible in the vehicle, a 1981 two-door Mercury registered to a Woodbridge, Va., resident. They were able to pull one of the men through the rear window, but it took about 30 minutes to pry open the car, remove the roof and pull out the other two occupants.
"It was so tragic, it all seemed to happen so slow," said the jogger. He said he and several other passersby initially saw smoke coming from the car, but no flames. "Then I noticed flames developing, and I said, 'My God, the thing's on fire!' "
Bernard Bowens was pulled from the driver's seat, his brother from the back seat and Hines from the front.
The car struck the trunk of a medium-sized tree that stands about 50 yards from the bridge. The jogger said that police attempted to put out the fire with extinguishers, but were unable to do so.
"The flames were getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and then it was just too late," he said.
Traffic was slowed on southbound I-395 and other approaches to the bridge for about 30 minutes after the 9 p.m. accident as emergency vehicles blocked the right-hand lanes. East Basin Drive, the access road to the Jefferson Memorial, was closed completely.