Accident aftermath

January 15, 2004

OFTEN CALLED the East Coast's Main Street, Interstate 95 is the region's most important highway, and so a major accident such as the one that took place Tuesday afternoon in Howard County seems all the more catastrophic and personal.

Four people were killed and another was injured when a tanker truck drove off an overpass and plunged onto northbound I-95 shortly before 3 p.m., setting off a multiple-vehicle collision and a hellish blaze that could be seen for miles. How many more might have died had the incident taken place just an hour or two later on a highway choked with commuter traffic?

It will likely take weeks for the details of the accident to be fully revealed. But it's hard not to be impressed by the fast and dramatic response of emergency crews, police, firefighters and public works officials who not only extinguished a fire, but assessed the environmental risk, conducted a detailed investigation, cleaned up the site and restored all lanes of traffic in about 12 hours.

Officials say at least 300 people were involved in that effort. Let the record show that the first to arrive was not a police officer or firefighter. It was Rick Greenwell, a senior emergency response technician for the State Highway Administration. A 49-year-old Baltimore native, Mr. Greenwell's job is to keep traffic moving on the busy highway. He just happened to be a half-mile south of the scene when he heard the explosion and saw the rising fireball.

"I drove up the right shoulder and all you could see was heavy smoke," he recalled yesterday. "It smelled awful, like burning rubber and asphalt. Some people in their cars were praying, and that was good, I guess. I just knew that we had to get people away and out of there."

Mr. Greenwell's presence was not only fortuitous. It reveals how highways such as I-95 have become increasingly dependent on people like him to prevent gridlock. That portion of I-95 handles about 200,000 vehicles each day. A four-lane highway has a maximum capacity of 8,800 vehicles per hour. Do the math - I-95 is nearly full, particularly at peak times.

For more than a decade, Maryland has been investing millions of dollars in remote sensors, cameras, message boards, improved communications equipment and roving patrols to clear accidents, all to maximize the capacity of existing roads. That's out of necessity - the state can afford neither the billions of dollars needed to expand its highways nor the environmental damage such a massive project would cause.

Authorities estimate it now takes an average of 28 minutes to handle an accident on a highway such as I-95 (from the time it's reported to the minute all vehicles and debris are cleared), a third less time than five years ago. Good thing. If the region is to continue to grow and prosper, we need to be able to move on Main Street even if we aren't always aware, or appreciative, of the heroic efforts required to keep it open.

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