The deaths of six construction workers in a crash Wednesday along a busy Maryland highway are putting a spotlight on the dangers road crews face as highway projects increase across the country.
The fatalities come as federal officials and the highway construction industry make a new push to protect workers after years of increasing deaths and a boom in road-building funded by the infrastructure law. A rise in road deaths during the pandemic, often attributed to unsafe driving, has also caught the industry’s attention amid calls to boost safety.
Troopers responded to the Baltimore County crash about 12:40 p.m. Wednesday along the inner loop of Interstate 695 at Security Boulevard, police said in a statement.
According to an initial investigation, the driver of a gray Acura TLX, later identified as Lisa Adrienna Lea, 54, of Randallstown, Md., was trying to change lanes when her car struck the front corner panel on the passenger side of a Volkswagen Jetta driven by Melachi Brown, 20, of Windsor Mill, Md. That caused the Acura to lose control and hit the highway workers before overturning, police said.
Maryland State Police identified the dead workers as Rolando Ruiz, 46, of Laurel; Carlos Orlando Villatoro Escobar, 43, of Frederick; Jose Armando Escobar, 52, of Frederick; Mahlon Simmons III, 31, of Union Bridge; Mahlon Simmons II, 52, of Union Bridge; and Sybil Lee DiMaggio, 46, of Glen Burnie.
Villatoro Escobar and Armando Escobar were brothers. Maritza Guzman de Villatoro, Villatoro Escobar’s wife, struggled through tears to describe how the crash had taken both her brother-in-law as well as her childhood sweetheart and husband of more than two decades.
“There are no words,” she said in a phone interview in Spanish, pausing every few minutes. “What can I tell you? Drivers need to be more careful when they’re on the road. Innocent people pay later for their mistakes.”
While Villatoro Escobar had never been particularly religious when he was younger, Guzman encouraged him to start coming with her to church.
“Sometimes, we would feel stressed with work,” said Guzman, a cook. “But then we would go to church, hear the word of God, and come back with a different feeling.”
Now, she noted, it was his job that had killed him.
Michael Sakata, chief executive of the Maryland Transportation Builders & Materials Association, said DiMaggio worked for construction firm KCI and the other five worked for contractor Concrete General.
Lea, who was the sole occupant of the Acura, was taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center. She could not be reached for comment Thursday. Brown did not report injuries, police said.
Nathan J. Beil, chief executive of KCI, said before the workers were identified Thursday that he had little information about what happened during the crash, which occurred on the Baltimore Beltway about eight miles west of downtown.
“It’s a very difficult time,” he said. “The firms involved are simply focusing on the human element.”
Officials with Concrete General did not respond to a request for comment.
Villatoro Escobar had worked in construction since coming to Maryland from El Salvador, Guzman said. When he started working on a job site along I-695 this week, he warned he would have to leave their home earlier and return later to make the 42-mile trip.
Guzman, 41, met Villatoro Escobar when they were teenagers in their hometown of Anamorós, a small city in eastern El Salvador. From the start, he seemed like a responsible, hard worker.
“He wasn’t distant, or one of those guys who got in trouble all the time,” she said, “and I fell in love with him over that.”
They decided in 2011 to seek more opportunities for their three children and join family members in the United States. Villatoro Escobar came first, working 10-hour days and sometimes a sixth day on Saturday to save money so the rest of the family could join him a few years later.
“He fought to make sure we had everything we needed,” she said. On weekends, he would watch Real Madrid soccer matches and take their children hiking or drive them to the mall.
George Durm, the husband of DiMaggio, said the two met in high school and lost touch for 20 years. They reconnected about five years ago and married. Durm said his wife loved her job and two children, and he called her a “fantastic person.”
“She was terrified of this job site,” Durm said.
Relatives of the others could not immediately be reached or declined to speak.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday it had assigned two investigators to work on the case. They will focus on speeding, work zone protection and collision avoidance technology. The board said it expects to issue preliminary findings in three weeks.
The Maryland State Highway Administration said the construction workers were on a project known as Transportation Systems Management and Operations, which is aimed at easing congestion on a stretch of the Baltimore Beltway.
Videos and other images from the scene show the area was lined with concrete barriers, which experts say offer some of the best protection for highway construction crews.
David McKee, vice president of marketing and government relations at traffic safety firm PSS, said the gap in the barriers might be an indication that crews were transitioning between project phases.
“By all indications it was a horrific crash,” McKee said. “Typically, if a car somehow gets inside or past the barrier into the protected workspace, there’s no place for it to go.”
Unions and construction trade organizations have long called for better protection for construction crews. Two days before the crash, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association wrote to the U.S. Department of Transportation urging federal officials to do more to protect highway construction workers as the number of projects grows.
“With that growth comes increased worker exposure,” the group wrote. “It would be tragic to sacrifice the safety and well-being of those laboring to build a safer system for other users.”
At a hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill, senators and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg cited the crash in calling for increased road safety efforts across the country.
Buttigieg paused testimony on his agency’s budget to acknowledge the deaths, saying, “We cannot and must not accept that roadway fatalities are an inevitable part of life in America.” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) commented as well, noting the six deaths and urging that more be done to avoid such tragedies.
Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) tweeted, “My heart goes out to the victims and the families affected by the tragic crash on the 695 beltway,” adding that his office is in contact with local authorities. Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski echoed those sentiments, saying, “We offer our sincere condolences to the families, friends and loved ones of those who have lost their lives in [Wednesday’s] tragic crash.”
Nationwide, about 860 people were killed in work zone crashes in 2020 and more than 44,000 were injured, according to an analysis by the National Safety Council — up from 586 people killed in a year a decade earlier. The builders association said as many as 220 construction workers are killed annually, but that federal data is incomplete and the figures “are approximations at best.”
Between 2016 and 2020, Maryland had 7,704 work-zone-related crashes that injured 3,263 people, according to MDOT, while 46 people were killed. About half of those killed or injured were motorists, MDOT said.
Sakata said state authorities have put fresh emphasis on work zone safety since the start of the pandemic, a period in which road deaths have risen dramatically. Those efforts included a safety summit in October, Sakata said.
“It’s definitely something that MDOT has had a refocus on,” Sakata said. “You’ve seen vehicles traveling at a high rate of speed.”
The state says speeding, distracted driving and following too closely are the top causes of the crashes.
While the pandemic is linked to a broad rise in crash deaths, the surge in federal road funding poses a particular challenge for the construction workers who will build the new infrastructure.
“We have been banging the drum on this for over 20 years,” said Walter Jones, director of occupational health and safety for the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America. “We are definitely afraid of what the infrastructure bill will bring.”
Alice Crites, Michael Laris, Razzan Nakhlawi and Joe Heim contributed to this report.