A fuel tanker on its side during the evening commute is bad for traffic.
Being overturned at a chokepoint of the Capital Beltway, when blossom tourists and home-opener baseball fans add to the usual backups, makes it worse.
And events deteriorate to exceptionally curse-the-fates-aloud lousy when the wait for roads to reopen takes 12 hours, as it did Thursday near the American Legion Bridge in Northern Virginia.
Circumstances were not aided when the pump being used to empty the 8,500 gallons of unleaded fuel from the tanker broke, extending what should have been a three-hour job, Virginia State Police said.
The truck driver, Weldon Harrison, 45, of Woodbridge has been cited with reckless driving and four counts of having defective brakes in the crash, Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for Virginia State Police, said Friday.
Jack Gunther, an IT consultant who lives in the Palisades neighborhood of Northwest Washington, said his wife, Avery, gave up trying to get home from her job as a park naturalist in Annandale, Va., after 2½ hours stuck in the traffic diverted from the inner-loop debacle. She spent the night at a hotel in Falls Church when her 35- to 40-minute trip ballooned.
The traffic mess started just before 2 p.m. when the tanker truck crashed, straddled three lanes of traffic and clipped a guardrail on the right shoulder.
“There’s never a good time in Northern Virginia to have a crash,” said Geller. But with all the events going on, it was especially bad timing on a section of road that carries roughly 239,000 vehicles daily.
“Unfortunately, it created the perfect storm,” Geller said. “You had the inner loop of the Beltway at the American Legion Bridge, which is already heavily traveled at any time of the day.”
“And it occurred at the cusp of rush hour,” she said. “Plus, you had high-volume traffic events in Northern Virginia, and in addition to that, it was a beautiful spring day in Washington, so people were out,” and the pump broke.
There were reports of school buses stuck in traffic and parents walking to meet their children at the sides of roads after traffic was waved away from the Beltway onto other routes.
Three vehicles crashed trying to avoid the beached tanker, police said
Gunther called the Beltway crash and commute for his wife “an absolute disaster.”
She came home early Friday morning, showered, changed clothes and headed right back to work to feed the animals at the nature center, he said. He said his wife normally leaves work at 5 p.m., but after he called to warn her of the Beltway mess, she stayed until 7 p.m., trying to wait it out.
When she did get on the road, she was redirected from her normal commute along part of the Beltway and wound up in standstill traffic for almost two hours at the intersection of Glebe and Chesterbrook roads and finally got “fed up.”
“It’s a tough commute on any given day,” he said, “and last night, it was hideous.”
Trea Turner, the Washington Nationals shortstop, did not fare well either and shared on Twitter. He wrote, “It took me OVER AN HOUR to drive 3.2 miles. . . anyone know where I can get a scooter?”
That it was a fuel tanker that crashed complicated issues.
The Fairfax County Fire Department, with the help of other agencies, arrived quickly and contained the leaks from the two ruptures in the tanker, so no fuel made it into the Potomac River, Geller said.
But getting a truck that’s full of fuel upright is no easy — or rapid — operation.
“You can’t just upright the truck,” Geller said, because the weight of the fuel would rip open the tank, and then “you’d have a hazardous-material situation.”
The tanker couldn’t be moved or pushed to the side because that would cause more damage, so there was little to do but wait until another vehicle arrived to pump the fuel into another tanker.
Around 4:30 p.m., state police said, they were told the rescue tanker was on Interstate 66 and trying to get to the crash under police escort, a trip that still took roughly an hour because of the traffic.
At 5:30, the tanker arrived and began pumping fuel from the overturned truck. Officials said they estimated pumping would take about an hour and a half to three hours.
But it took much longer when, just before 8 p.m., the pump being used to transfer the fuel broke and a new one had to be brought in.
Around 11:30, crews were done transferring the fuel and turned to righting the truck.
By midnight, officials started to reopen a few lanes. Hazmat crews cleaned up slick spots.
The road reopened shortly before 3 a.m.
Mala Candadai said it was a “nightmare commute.” It took her roughly 3½ hours to get from Alexandria to her Bethesda home, a drive that typically takes about an hour and 15 minutes. She said she spent an hour on the George Washington Memorial Parkway to avoid the Beltway and then another hour on Chain Bridge Road and another hour on MacArthur Boulevard.
She left her job at 3:30 p.m. and got home at 7 p.m.