A truck pileup on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge early yesterday closed the Maryland-bound lanes of the Capital Beltway for five hours and caused a colossal rush-hour traffic jam for thousands of commuters.
The driver of a flatbed truck that apparently plowed into a tractor-trailer loaded with orange juice and then sideswiped a third rig was charged with reckless driving, Virginia state police said. He was identified as Chester Pearson, 41, of Suffolk, Va.
The two trucks that were struck were waiting on the Virginia side for the bridge's draw span to close when the crash occurred about 3:30 a.m.
Pearson consented to a breath test at the scene that indicated a blood alcohol level of 0.15, above the legal limit of 0.10 for intoxication, police said.
But Pearson was not charged with drunk driving because state police, initially occupied with cleaning up the accident and restoring order to the Beltway, were unable to perform more accurate breath and blood tests to check the initial reading within the two hours required by law, Capt. Herbert Northern said.
Police said Pearson, who was carrying a load of steel rods to Baltimore from Chesapeake, Va., apparently was driving at high speed when the accident occurred. Another trucker tried to warn him on a citizens' band radio that the bridge span was raised and that he should slow down, police said.
Pearson, who was not wearing a seat belt, was slightly injured. No one else was hurt. The cab on Pearson's truck was almost destroyed, police said.
The accident created chaos for legions of commuters as authorities diverted traffic from the heavily used Beltway onto alternative routes for the morning rush hour.
"The effect was absolutely astounding," said Walt Starling, an airborne traffic reporter for radio station WLTT. "In a lot of places, some people were probably an hour and a half late to work. I'd wager that there was not an office in town that was not affected."
Police closed the outer loop of the Beltway until 8:50 a.m. and the inner loop for more than an hour to allow access by emergency vehicles and wreckers, causing a backup of traffic into Maryland.
Workers used six tons of sand to sop up a glutinous mixture of diesel fuel and orange juice that was smeared across the lanes, according to a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation. "It was a very sticky road," she said.
The accident had a ripple effect on traffic throughout the metropolitan area. Authorities lifted car pool restrictions on I-95, I-395 and I-66, but backups persisted on I-95 for miles until well after 9:30 a.m. The Beltway was clogged as far away as Montgomery County.
The accident comes at a time of rising public debate on the issue of truck traffic on the Beltway, with safety advocates calling for increased regulation.
Mary Anne Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the Potomac chapter of the American Automobile Association, said that "trucks are notorious for going too fast when they approach our bridges, so as a result, they rear-end the vehicles that have slowed in front of them."
According to a 1986 study by AAA, tractor-trailer accidents have increased at more than three times the rate of other Beltway accidents. The study also showed that truckers are charged with violations at twice the rate of other motorists.
"We see time after time on these police reports, 'Failure to adjust speed to traffic conditions,' " Reynolds said.
The chain of events that ended with yesterday's accident began when the drawbridge operator raised the span over the Potomac River at 3:28 a.m. to allow passage of a freighter bound for the Robinson Terminal Warehouse in Alexandria, according to a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Public Works, which operates the drawbridge.
Two trucks, the first belonging to Giant Food, the second loaded with frozen orange juice from Florida, were stopped in the right lane on the approach to the bridge, authorities said.
The truck driven by Pearson and owned by Everett Express Inc. of Tarboro, N.C., approached the bridge at high speed, according to Trooper Brenda Stokes.
Another trucker broadcast a warning on his CB radio that Pearson either did not hear or ignored, Stokes said.
At the last second, Stokes said, Pearson apparently saw the orange juice truck and swerved to avoid it. Instead, his truck caught the left rear part of the trailer and tore it open, scattering tins of frozen orange juice across the road.
Pearson's truck then sideswiped the Giant Food truck, the trooper said, before the flatbed spun and jacknifed across the highway. It came to a halt with the cab facing in the wrong direction.
"If he had hit dead center, we would have had orange juice from here to California," Stokes said. "The frame of the whole truck was torn to pieces," she said. "We had parts scattered over the bridge for a hundred feet."
Stokes said she arrived on the scene as Pearson was being treated in an ambulance and, after he gave his consent, administered a breath test with a field device called an Alco-sensor.
Northern, the state police captain, said that troopers were needed at the scene and could not be spared to follow Pearson to Alexandria Hospital, where he was treated and released. Northern described the Alco-sensor test as a "screening device" whose results cannot be used in court.
Stokes said that Pearson left the Everett terminal in Chesapeake at 5:30 p.m. for the trip to Baltimore. Normally, she said, the trip would have taken about four hours, but Pearson told her that he was delayed by engine trouble.
State police said Pearson was driving with a valid state license. Randy Everett, president of Everett Express, described Pearson as a reliable employe with a clean safety record who has been with the company about six months.
Everett said, "You hire a man, his record is good, we put him through a two-week safety program, but when he gets away from us, it's hard to control these people."
Staff writer Joseph E. Bouchard contributed to this report.