One lived on the road

one was about to retire

Accident took the lives of a hard-driving mother, Glen Burnie grandfather

January 17, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Rita Ann Gall lived in her truck.

Three years ago, she hit the road. A printer most of her adult life, she saw tough economic times coming and jumped at the chance to enter trucking school. Her older son, Stephen, now 25, was working in construction in South Carolina. Her younger, Travis, now 20, was still in high school, but she knew he had a home with her sister back in Lansing, Mich., where the women had grown up.

It wasn't the oddest of career moves. Her mother had driven a truck in her day. Sister Laurie Hoppe still drives a school bus in Lansing.

"She wanted to provide for her family," Hoppe said yesterday. "Rita thought it would be a great way to see the country, meet new people, make friends across the country and provide for her boys."

On Tuesday afternoon, taking a load of retail goods from Georgia to New York, up Interstate 95, which she had driven so many times, Gall, 42, was one of four people killed when a tanker truck loaded with gasoline plunged off an overpass and exploded in her path. She probably died instantly.

Yesterday, as Gall's family got confirmation of her death, a Glen Burnie family was making funeral arrangements for another victim, Maurice Durschlag, who was a week away from retirement.

Hoppe last spoke with her sister late Monday. Gall was waiting for her Swift Transportation tractor-trailer to be loaded. She wanted them to hurry up so she could get on the road. She couldn't work much longer that day - she had already put in all the hours she was legally permitted. She ended up having to sleep in the Georgia yard, her 9-year-old cocker spaniel mix, Dubba Dog, by her side.

Since the accident, Hoppe has wondered whether one small change in the day's routine might have saved her sister.

What if the truck had been loaded faster? What if Gall had made it closer to her destination Monday? Would she have been on I-95 in Elkridge when a ball of fire fell from the sky?

"We have what-if'd everything to death. We could go insane with the what-if's," Hoppe said. "It's just a case of the wrong place at the wrong time, and no one can say why. There is no answer."

On Wednesday, too soon for Hoppe to worry - Gall had exceeded her cell phone minutes the month before and was trying to break herself of the daily calls to her sister - Maryland State Police phoned to tell her of the crash. Front-page news in Maryland, it hadn't registered a blip in the Midwest. The police wanted dental records, which they got from South Carolina.

Hoppe asked about the dog. That helped police determine that Gall was indeed the victim, she said. Yesterday, Lansing police came to her door to confirm what the family already knew.

Police found the license plate from the red Chevrolet pickup that 62-year-old Durschlag was driving on that same portion of I-95 at that same moment. It led them to the small Glen Burnie home he shared with his wife of more than 38 years.

The family was panicked. They had heard about the fiery crash but never for a minute thought Durschlag could be involved. They called his cell phone. They called the Double-T Diner on Ritchie Highway, where he often stopped after work for coffee. They couldn't find a trace of him.

Durschlag had retired more than a decade ago from his maintenance job at Westinghouse. He did odd jobs ever since, recently laying tile. The day of the crash, he was headed home from a tiling job.

Durschlag was looking to the future. His first Social Security check was expected next week, and he was going to retire for good, maybe buy some land, get some horses. Definitely spend more time with his grandchildren, says daughter Jackie Durschlag.

The sixth grandchild - Cody Maurice - was born Thursday, the day authorities confirmed Durschlag's death.

"He was finally going to take it easy," said his daughter, the oldest of his three children.

A funeral prayer service is scheduled for 7:45 p.m. Sunday at Singleton Funeral Home in Glen Burnie.

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