Crash on JFX stalls city traffic

Asphalt truck flips

commuters pack side streets for hours

Spill affects Jones Falls

April 06, 2001|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson and Jonathan Bor | Kimberly A.C. Wilson and Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

A dump truck loaded with 10 tons of hot asphalt careered over a retaining wall along Interstate 83 and plummeted into the Jones Falls yesterday - an accident that snarled traffic from North Baltimore to downtown and left much of the city in gridlock into the evening.

Eighteen-wheel trucks and commuters alike were forced to idle on the northbound lanes of the expressway for more than four hours after the 2 p.m. accident, which created an environmental hazard that took until nearly 7 p.m. to clean up.

The Jones Falls Expressway - with its lanes closed for 2 1/2 miles between East Fayette Street and Northern Parkway - backed up main routes and secondary roads from the Inner Harbor to North Baltimore, and from McCulloh Street to Harford Road as drivers sought a way out.

"It's just crawling. This is very aggravating," said Ted Melnychook, a tractor-trailer driver from British Columbia, who said it took an hour to travel along Falls Road in Hampden to Cold Spring Lane - a distance of about six blocks.

The driver of the dump truck, James Roderick Buse, was trapped for a short time in the cab of the truck, which landed on its side and dumped its load into the waterway north of Cold Spring Lane, creating an environmental hazard, authorities said.

Two motorists stopped and ran down a 25-foot embankment to Buse's aid with crowbars and a fire extinguisher. They put out a small fire that began on the underside of the truck but failed to free Buse.

Rescue workers eventually pulled him from the wreck. Buse, 35, of Randallstown, was treated for cuts and bruises at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore and released yesterday.

The northbound lanes of the Jones Falls Expressway - the city's main north-south highway - were closed after the accident, as emergency personnel and environmental workers swarmed the area. City and state environmental crews used plastic booms to contain the asphalt, which is petroleum-based, and diesel fuel from the truck's two ruptured tanks from continuing south down the foot-deep Jones Falls toward the Inner Harbor.

Though the accident was reported at 2:04 p.m., its effects were felt through rush hour and into the evening, as commuters diverted from the northbound JFX tried to find new routes home and clogged other roads.

Baltimore Police Lt. Carl Gutberlet, who oversees the traffic investigation section, said all four lanes of the expressway were reopened about 7 p.m. after the spill was cleaned up and the truck towed away.

Police officers from the city's traffic section and from districts around the city were called out to direct traffic at many intersections suddenly jammed with frustrated commuters.

At 5:30 p.m. - the peak of rush hour - traffic was at a virtual standstill at Falls Road and Cold Spring Lane.

Traffic bottlenecked on downtown arterial streets on either side of the expressway: Maryland Avenue, Howard Street, Charles Street, Calvert Street and McCulloh were all backed up below North Avenue.

Above North Avenue, Falls Road, Guilford Avenue and Mount Royal Avenue and Harford Road backed up, also as a result of the accident, Gutberlet said

Denise Carter of Rosedale, who was filling her tank at a service station across the street, gave up on an appointment with her tax accountant on Liberty Road because of the delays.

"I'm going to go to the store and fill up on some groceries and just go back home," Carter said.

Meanwhile, Buse had been released from the hospital and was on his way home.

Catherine F. Martin, who teaches at Edgewood Elementary School, was a few car lengths behind Buse when she noticed the Luckert Trucking dump truck veer right from the right lane about a quarter-mile past the Cold Spring Lane interchange.

The truck plowed up the 3-foot-tall concrete barrier, flipped three times down an embankment and landed driver's side-up in the stream 25 feet below.

"He was yelling, `I'm here! I'm here, help me!'" said Martin, 30.

Martin was one of at least three drivers who saw the accident and called police from cell phones.

"We were all going about 45 mph," said Erwin A. Burtnick, a retired city auditor. "I thought he was going onto the shoulder, but he just kept going."

Buse later told his boss, Laura A. Luckert, owner of Luckert Trucking, that a pothole shifted his payload and caused him to lose control of the truck.

But Baltimore police said driver error was to blame.

"The preliminary investigation reveals that this accident was caused by driver error," said police spokesman Kevin Enright. No charges have been filed.

Luckert said Buse began hauling for her two weeks ago. He was delivering asphalt to Towson University, she said.

When she spoke with Buse about 90 minutes after the accident, he told her his version.

"He just said that the front end went into the pothole, and it must have shifted the load of asphalt and it went to the right," she said.

"I don't know of any pothole of a size that is going to throw you off of the Jones Falls [Expressway]," said Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the Department of Public Works, which is responsible for tending to potholes. He said the highway is scheduled to be resurfaced this year.

Whatever the cause of the accident, Luckert said she was grateful that her driver walked away with only sore muscles.

Sun staff writer Richard Irwin contributed to this article.

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