Inches between life, death

In a few seconds, ordinary rush hour becomes a nightmare

Mundane scene transformed

Beltway Bridge Collapse

June 09, 1999|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,SUN COLUMNIST

The sun had just started to set, melting into a pale yellow sky, when Baltimore County firefighters and rescue workers in hard hats raised large red shrouds, like draperies you see in churches, around the shiny, midnight blue Dodge Durango.

The Durango was smashed nose down by the bridge, trapped in an odd tilt, its left rear wheel frozen three inches off the ground. The firefighters raised the shrouds on long poles, cloaking the horror of the Durango driver's death.

Just like that -- rush hour in a place through which we have driven a million times, this concrete walkway, an old slab with a rusty, arched chain-link cage, collapsed on the Beltway's inner loop.

It sheared off perfectly over the median strip, halfway across the Beltway, as if someone had sliced it with a cleaver. It landed in a long V.

The slab fell on the Durango, a new sport utility vehicle with shiny chrome wheels, road muscle and a sleek look.

This one had beautiful detailing, too. Now it was covered with the red shrouds.

A silver hearse from Ambrose Funeral Home waited nearby to receive the body.

At the end of Shelbourne Road, near a Baptist church shielded from the Beltway by a high noise barrier, a crowd gathered three deep behind a yellow plastic police tape.

The Beltway had been closed, of course -- vacant and eerily silent as far as you could see.

You could hear the clatter of TV helicopters. A Scott Joplin rag played merrily as a jingle on a green snowball truck in front of Maiden Choice special education school on Shelbourne Road.

Kids huddled about the truck and waited patiently for snowballs, dollar bills in their hands.

You could hear a snare drum and a glockenspiel, too. The drum corps and majorettes of the Arbutus Sailorettes went through drills in front of the school.

Majorettes, young girls in T-shirts and shorts and sneakers, twirled batons and practiced spins. They practice there every Tuesday evening, one of the mothers of the group said.

They practice no matter what.

Out on the Beltway, a few feet from the Durango, was a Toyota, its front end trapped under the slab.

Next to the Toyota was a white car, a Maxima, its front end also smashed by the slab.

Privacy in death

While firefighters worked behind the shrouds to remove the body from the Durango, two men from Varsity Towing backed a flatbed up to the Maxima and lugged chains to its bumper.

The line of death, where the slab fell, was clear and stunning.

All three of the vehicles arrived at the fall line at almost exactly the same time, the Durango maybe a split-second sooner.

Just like that.

Everything changes

You could imagine yourself out on the Beltway, on that stretch before Wilkens Avenue, cruising along, maybe slowing down and speeding up to the rhythm of rush hour.

You could imagine yourself there, just like the moving-through-life-like-the-rest-of-us drivers of the Durango and the two other cars, focused on the traffic ahead of you, maybe listening to the Orioles game on the radio or music on the stereo, maybe thankful for air conditioning on a sweltering day.

Then, just like that.

A bridge no one noticed much anymore, a sliver of concrete suspended over a stream of commuters, crashes along a line we've crossed a million times.

Removing the body from the Durango took only minutes.

The hearse driver, a bearded man in a suit, said something to a firefighter, then to his associate from the funeral home. They slid into the hearse and pulled away, driving southeast on the inner loop.

A state trooper with a clipboard said something to the men from the towing company.

Out of the shrouds

Baltimore County firefighters and others who've probably seen death on the highway hundreds of times, but never like this, started moving the poles and releasing the shrouds from the Durango, still trapped in its tilt.

It was about 8 o'clock now, three hours after the accident.

The firefighters lay the shrouds on the Beltway and then, with a kind of military precision, folded them for storage.

Pub Date: 6/09/99

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