A two-mile stretch of the Capital Beltway was closed for about five hours yesterday after a truck overturned in Virginia, just south of Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge, spilling 500 gallons of hot tar onto the road and snaring thousands of morning commuters on one of the stickiest days of the year.
Hundreds of southbound cars caught between the accident site and the Interstate 295 interchange in Maryland were diverted while work crews cleaned up the mess.
The Wilson bridge carries the Beltway (Interstate 495) and Interstate 95 across the Potomac River.
With temperatures climbing into the 90s and air pollution high, workers distributed water to motorists and aided those whose vehicles became overheated or ran out of gasoline.
In another city, it might have been one for the record books. But not in the Washington area.
"Somehow, I think people have prepared themselves," said Sgt. Ernest Walker of the Maryland State Police. "I think people have gotten used to these incidents."
Virginia State Police said the accident occurred when a small red pickup truck apparently cut off the tar truck as both headed south about 7:30 a.m. The driver of the tar truck tried to avoid a collision, but his vehicle struck a jersey barrier and overturned, police said. No one was injured.
No charges were filed against the tar truck driver, Apollo Fame, 34, of College Park. Authorities said the pickup truck driver fled and has not been identified.
Officials closed all southbound lanes of the Beltway at the I-295 interchange and a short stretch of one northbound lane in Virginia that was littered with tar and debris. Traffic backed up for more than four miles into Maryland and about the same distance in Virginia. All lanes reopened about 12:45 p.m.
One of those caught in the traffic was David DeVorkin, a science history curator at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum. He was in a van escorting an 18-wheel truck with a precious cargo, a 20-foot-long antique wooden telescope that was a favorite of Sir William Herschel, an astronomer who discovered the planet Uranus in 1781.
On Pennsylvania Avenue in Prince George's County, traffic ground to a halt.
Other drivers "kept wedging themselves between us and the truck," DeVorkin said. "Everything else was totally gridlocked." It was nearly 2 p.m. before the little convoy reached the Smithsonian.