In tragedy, convergence of five lives

Beltway: It seemed incredible, this sudden and tragic alteration of the dependable highway landscape.

Beltway Bridge Collapse

June 10, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Until the bridge fell in, their luck had been good. A Canadian farm boy, living a dream on the highways of North America. A grandmother enjoying her retirement. A young mother with a beautiful 3-month-old and a doctor husband. A happy couple of 18 years from Northwest Baltimore, heading home.

Paul McIntosh, Elizabeth Freeman, Henri Patrice McQueen Williams, Robert Norman Taylor and Regina Lee Brehon.

Five strangers.

Four vehicles.

Three fates.

A two-loop highway.

One old bridge and one shared moment of tragic timing.

Their lives intersected late Tuesday afternoon on the Beltway, a circular highway without intersections. It is a crowded, concrete Internet where thousands of people share the same road without knowing each other.

It is a road shaped like a clock and governed by the clock, the daily rush hour being as inescapable as chance and death.

When the excavator attached to McIntosh's truck knocked down the pedestrian bridge at Shelbourne Road, when the others' cars slammed into the fallen span, the Beltway -- and thus Baltimore -- came to a standstill.

Over the next 24 hours, hundreds of people -- visited the scene.

The news shocked them and drew them to Arbutus, not only because Taylor died, not only because three others were seriously injured, not only because McIntosh -- the gentlest of young men -- will have to live with his mistake for the rest of his life.

The accident stunned because it happened on modern Baltimore's de facto main street. It surprised because big concrete highways and bridges and commutes seem more fixed and permanent than just about anything else.

It stopped Baltimore because the Beltway -- despite the Towson traffic jams, the overturned chemical tankers near the Key Bridge and the sun that shines in west-side drivers' eyes -- is a psychological border marking suburban stability and a life of less risk.

"People die in accidents all the time, but this one makes me think about chance," said Don Shiflett, 57, a press operator from Arbutus who was standing beside the Beltway and the remains of the bridge yesterday. He came because he was curious about the accident. In his shirt pocket, he had a dozen lottery tickets.

"I mean, on the Beltway, you never think about it. You're driving to a house someplace. You take life for granted," he said, getting into his black Ford pickup and heading back on the road. "I've got a better odds of winning on one of these tickets than having a bridge fall on me. It's just average, solid people."

Tuesday on the Beltway, McIntosh, Freeman, Williams, Taylor and Brehon -- as described by friends, relatives and police -- were exceptional only for their bad luck.

In love with the road

Paul McIntosh grew up in Brussels, which was too small to fulfill all his tastes. The town of 500 in Ontario, Canada, is a difficult two-hour drive from Toronto. Home was his parents' 200-acre dairy farm.

The youngest of John and Marie McIntosh's eight children, the 6-foot-2 teen-ager played hockey, raced motorbikes and worshiped baseball. After high school, he found work on farms and in machine shops, his fiancee said. But none of those jobs took him out of Brussels.

Trucking did.

"He loves it; he really found something," said his mother. In only a year on the job, she said, "I think he had already seen most of the 50 states." The hours were long, and maybe he could have used more sleep. But his driving record, as far as is known, was perfect.

Tuesday afternoon he lined his truck up on McComas Street outside the Locust Point Marine Terminal and waited to pick up a huge Caterpillar excavator. Police believe he might have been too tired, that he might have doctored his logbook, a practice that has been the focus of considerable controversy for the trucking industry.

But no one would say for sure yesterday.

His mother still hadn't talked to him yesterday morning, but she suspects he was his usual self: polite, happy, a bit quiet. His luck had been good. This job was to take him back to London, Ontario -- an hour from Brussels -- and then home.

He was engaged to be married.

His route would give him, from an elevated stretch of Interstate 95, a glorious view of Camden Yards, the temple of his beloved game. He was 24 years old.

Lowering the excavator's boom, keeping the loaded truck's height under the approved 14 feet 2 inches and securing the excavator were his responsibility. Police say he failed at all three. The boom rose too high, and the excavator bounced.

At about 5, he drove out of the terminal and back onto McComas, past idling train cars, down a hill and out onto I-95 south, in the direction of the Beltway. Fortune was still with him.

With the excavator on top, his truck needed a 17-foot clearance, and the three overpasses on I-95 offered plenty of room. He turned onto the Beltway, heading west.

Wisecracking ways

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