Accident is called 'anomaly'

Size, speed possible factors in truck's fatal plunge off bay bridge

August 12, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

State transportation officials declared the Chesapeake Bay Bridge safe one day after a fatal crash that sent a tractor-trailer over a barrier, a dramatic accident that was described as an "anomaly" caused by speed and the size of the vehicle.

But a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said last night that federal investigators were at the scene for much of yesterday, and are looking into any safety issues that might need to be fixed, including traffic flow and bridge design.

All lanes of the bridge were open yesterday, in time for the afternoon rush hour, although traffic on the eastbound span of U.S. 50 remained backed up for miles, causing hours in delays.

The tractor-trailer, its cab upside-down and severed from its cargo, was extracted by cranes and hauled up the Chesapeake on a barge.

Geoffrey Kolberg, chief engineer for the Maryland Transportation Authority, said preliminary indications were that a car coming the opposite direction on the older, eastbound span crossed the center line during two-way traffic early Sunday morning.

The driver of the 18-wheeler, a poultry delivery truck, hit the brakes and slammed against a concrete Jersey wall, then crossed both lanes and jumped a wall on the opposite side.

Officials said it was the first time a vehicle had plummeted from the bridge.

"Jersey walls are not designed to handle a 55-mph, 80,000-pound truck impact," said Kolberg, noting the speed limit is 45 mph. "... It's very unlikely this would happen with a passenger-size vehicle."

Investigators working to determine the cause of the crash asked additional witnesses to come forward as they reconstruct the incident.

Seung Won Hong, who was uninjured when his Toyota Prius was struck by the truck, told The Sun that he saw a Chevrolet Camaro cross into the truck's lane, causing the 18-wheeler to lose control.

He said there was nothing the truck driver could have done to avoid the accident.

"There was no way for the truck to do anything," said Hong, of Alexandria, Va.. "The Camaro was head-on into the truck. It jackknifed, the brakes locked and made a screech."

Driver John Robert Short, 57, of Willards, was killed when the tractor-trailer crashed into the water just before 4 a.m. Sunday, police said. Two people traveling in the Camaro were flown to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center with injuries, and the driver, 19-year-old Candy Lynn Baldwin, remained there yesterday in serious condition.

Asked about the safety of the bridge, Kolberg said he had no reservations. "There is no doubt in my mind. I'm 100 percent certain that this bridge is safe," he said.

Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the NTSB, called Sunday's accident "fairly unique," adding that it deserves review by the federal agency's investigators. He said that a primary focus would be searching for any ways to improve safety that could be handled through new national highway and bridge regulations.

Knudson said it was possible that investigators might have additional information on what they have found by as soon as today.

Drivers who gathered on the Kent Island side of the bay to watch crews repair the bridge's damaged portion said they have long had reservations, particularly if crossing when there is two-way traffic on a single span.

Brian Burrier, a resident of Kent Island, drove around the Chesapeake Bay through northeast Maryland to pick up his wife from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. He said traffic was only part of his reasoning - he doesn't want to cross the bridge unless he absolutely has to.

"It's just too fast," said Burrier, a retired construction worker. "If you're doing the speed limit, they're flying by you at 60, 70 miles per hour."

Ragina C. Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, called the crash an "engineering failure" and cited statistics saying 70 percent of accidents on the Bay Bridge occur when two-way traffic is in effect.

"The reality is that yesterday's tragedy did not have to be as serious and as disruptive as it was," Averella said. "While it is too early to determine what the exact cause of the crash was, it is possible that the two-way traffic flow may have been a contributing factor in this tragic crash."

She urged Gov. Martin O'Malley to consider studying additional solutions addressing traffic capacity across the Chesapeake Bay, citing a task force convened by his predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., that explored the possibility of creating another crossing.

In a statement, O'Malley did not address concerns about the bridge, instead praising the work of emergency responders and the maintenance crews. "Every resource has been utilized to restore normal operations at the Bay Bridge," O'Malley said.

Current standards for roads with heavy truck traffic call for Jersey barriers that are 42 inches tall, said C.C. Fu, director of the University of Maryland's Bridge Engineering Software and Technology Center.

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