Cruise Control

When area roads become an awful snarl, as may happen often this week, Paul Hubbe is one of the folks who untangle the mess

November 21, 2006|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Reporter

On the day before Thanksgiving last year, as millions of Americans prepared to roast turkeys, a section of Interstate 95 cooked for several hours at about a thousand degrees.

"The flames were 30 feet in the air," recalls Paul Hubbe.

He's seated behind the wheel of a blinding-yellow truck, driving past the spot of that big burn, which occurred a few hundred yards from the Washington Beltway near College Park.

"See that tree?" asks Hubbe, wagging an index finger at some of the damage. "That's all charred."

A tractor-trailer flipped and hemorrhaged diesel fuel. Then a spark ignited the gas. Four lanes of the southbound superhighway became a wall of fire. A patch of roadside woods went up in smoke.

Maryland Department of Transportation workers cleared the debris and repaired the blistered pavement before nightfall.

No serious injuries were reported, but it was a messy, foul-smelling start to the holiday.

"That's what we love!" exclaims Hubbe, who was one of the first people called to the scene. "The more twisted metal, the more tore up something is, the better day I have."

Hubbe professionally cruises for trouble. At 41, he is the dean of the department's emergency response unit drivers. Twenty-one of them circulate major traffic arteries in boxy trucks during the morning and evening commute-a-thons; sort of grease-stained good Samaritans.

Their job: Assist police, fire and rescue personnel in reopening roads as soon as possible after an accident. They mop spills and disengage bumpers from guardrails. They drag wounded cars off the battlefield, pick up the pieces when windshields shatter.

Twisted metal is a growth industry: According to State Highway Administration spokesman David Buck, there are about 100,000 crashes a year in Maryland.

"Some of the other public service agencies don't see the big picture. The thing with Paul, he takes so much ownership of the program," explains Alvin Marquess, operations manager for the emergency responders. "It's a personal thing for him to get that road open."

"The firefighters and the state troopers and anybody else on the scene look at Paul as kind of the chess master," says Bob Marburg, a veteran traffic reporter at WTOP-FM in Washington. "Sometimes you've got to be creative."

Police and fire crews technically "control" a scene. Hubbe supplies the voice of cool, let's-keep-things-moving reason. He has been known to commandeer a nearby construction crane or press passing motorists into service wielding brooms.

In dire circumstances, he might call Domino's or Papa John's.

"I get pizza delivered to big accident scenes," Hubbe says, chuckling. "The state police shake their heads and laugh at me, but they're the first ones wanting a ... slice of it."

He rides herd on Maryland's portion of the Washington Beltway, from the Wilson Bridge to Cabin John. It's the region's free-fire traffic zone. The number of accidents, Hubbe estimates, is more than double that of the Baltimore Beltway. Overhead digital signs frequently display this warning: "Expect delays on or at I-95/495. Stay alert."

Unfortunately, modern drivers' brains are wired differently, and that message tends to get processed as, "Traffic is war. Stay aggressive out there."

There are, in Hubbe's line of work, risks of burns and explosions, and inevitable brushes with tragedy. He has witnessed his share of fatal collisions, not to mention the poor fellow who pulled over near the Wilson Bridge and stabbed himself to death in the chest.

He also has seen almost every oddball act imaginable in the daily circus of steel: drivers shaving at 80 mph, tractor-trailers that overturned carrying loads of gunpowder and barbecue sauce, the Wells Fargo safe that fell onto the Beltway and sent $100 bills fluttering into the sky like exotic butterflies ("People were stopping and grabbing money. It was very interesting"), mothers breastfeeding babies on the shoulder of I-95.

His assessment of the goings-on? "They've got to look into passing some legislation for `driving while stupid.'"

Typical day's work

This morning's shift - a week before the Thanksgiving storm hits - has been relatively uneventful. Hubbe attended to a Nissan Pathfinder that rolled over on Interstate 270 south of Frederick. That's it so far.

A recent, more typical morning found him dealing with back-to-back smashes within two hours. A gray Toyota kissed a Mitsubishi flatbed carrying a load of firewood on I-95 north at College Park. All lanes had to be closed. Traffic on the entire East Coast seemingly ground to a halt.

Hubbe wrapped a chain around the Mitsubishi, yanked it upright with his truck, hauled it off the road and called a towing service to fetch the wreck. Then he retrieved the Toyota from a ditch and summoned another tow truck.

Shortly before that incident, a tractor-trailer sheared the driver's-side door off a hapless Mazda. Three lanes were closed, but traffic rolled again within 25 minutes.

"Like a walk in the park," Hubbe says.

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