His shot at traffic payback

Crash, long commute earns man chance to destroy Wilson bridge

August 25, 2006|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,sun reporter

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Dan Ruefly's daily commuting experiences along the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge - which included surviving an accident that left him with a crushed right hip - helped earn him the right to demolish a portion of the bridge Monday night as part of a contest to honor the motorist with the toughest daily drive.

Yet his commute alone is enough to earn him empathy: A general manager for an electrical contracting company in Rockville, he travels two hours each way. He leaves home in Accokeek in southwest Prince George's County at 5 a.m. so he can reach the bridge by 6 and avoid compounding his commute with harrowing gridlock.

In fact, a daily drive such as that poses the question: Ever consider moving closer to work?

"No," said Ruefly. He has no intention of leaving Accokeek, where he's lived for 30 years after moving from Oxon Hill, which is closer to Washington. "I know the area, and all my friends are in Southern Maryland."

Ruefly's sentiments are echoed throughout the Washington area, where a half-million people commute in and out of the nation's capital each day from as far as the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia.

What they try to avoid at all costs is the standstill traffic that snarls along the Capital Beltway and other major arteries throughout the day. And perhaps no crossing has been more notorious than the Wilson drawbridge, a frequent bottleneck that spans the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia.

It has been replaced by a taller, wider bridge - one that promises fewer backups and fewer drawbridge openings .

The old span is being taken down in the coming months. The bridge demolition includes the detonation of the Virginia-side abutment at midnight Monday, at Ruefly's hand.

More than 300 drivers entered the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project's Toughest Bridge Commute Contest. Each of the 20 finalists has a minimum one-hour commute.

"What an honor it is to be the one chosen," Ruefly said, "where there are so many people who have gone through the same thing I have on that bridge and sat in so much traffic like I have, like everybody has in this area."

The contest is the second well-publicized event this year for the bridge, which isn't scheduled to be completed until 2011. In June, three northbound lanes across the new span opened for traffic. The first car to cross was a Toyota Corolla driven by Ted Shin of Elkridge. The last five to cross the old bridge were given a commemorative medallion.

By 2008, 10 travel lanes will be open, with two additional lanes for express traffic, future mass transit or car-pool lanes.

Although it will still be a drawbridge, the new crossing at its peak will have a clearance of 78 feet - 28 feet higher than the old bridge. "The number of times the bridge will have to open will go from 260 openings per year to 65 openings per year," said Michelle Holland, the project's public affairs manager.

Wilson Bridge officials say they hope that events such as the Toughest Bridge Commute Contest will boost spirits of commuters who've endured the bridge construction.

Ruefly was there during the Wilson Bridge dedication on Dec. 28, 1961, and again in 1999 when traffic was snarled when someone tried to jump off during a suicide attempt.

His most memorable moment, however, was on a September morning in 1999, when he switched lanes in his Dodge pickup to avoid a tractor-trailer, only to slam into a another tractor-trailer that was straddling the right lane and the old bridge's 4-foot-wide shoulder.

"All of a sudden there was a big crash, and I'm looking and there's the tail end of this flatbed truck sitting on my dashboard," Ruefly said. "I was pushed back, and when they got me out from the ambulance, I had all the pain from my hip being broke. They told me they were taking me to Shock Trauma in Prince George's.

"The ambulance started to move, and rolled about 30 feet or so, and they opened the bridge to let a boat go through, I guess," Ruefly added. "So we had to sit there for probably 15 to 20 minutes."

Ruefly spent more than a year rehabilitating. His then-16-year-old daughter Tiffany, who nominated him for the contest, helped nurse him back to health. She will accompany him Monday.

What will happen afterward will resemble falling dominoes more than a scene from The Bridge on the River Kwai. Steel girders on the old bridge that are suspended about 30 feet from the ground in Alexandria's Jones Point Park will topple. The paved roadbed was removed long ago. Engineers do not expect anything to fall into the Potomac. Less than 100 pounds of explosives will be used. They won't blow up the girders as much as slice them.

"What you will hear will be no more than what you would hear if lightning struck in a park and thunder followed," said Russ Fuhrman, the executive project manager. "The biggest sound you will hear is those girders falling 30 feet. If you're more than 2,000 feet from the site you won't hear anything."

Some might find it amusing that the bridge is being demolished near the bewitching hour. But many have considered the bridge jinxed since Day 1: President Wilson's second wife, Edith Bolling Wilson, who was to have been the guest of honor at the dedication, died that day.

"I've heard that, too," Ruefly said, "but how can a bridge be jinxed?"

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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