05-23-2005, 03:21 AM #1
"I thought someone had blown up the bridge."
By JOANNE KIMBERLIN
CHESAPEAKE BAY BRIDGE-TUNNEL, Va. (AP) - With 800 miles in the
rear view mirror, Clay Backus paid the $12 toll, rolled up his
window against the raw wee hours and headed north across the
There was no time to detour to his parents' place in Suffolk.
Backus, 25, was making tracks from grad school in Florida to see
his newborn daughter in Maryland.
He rubbed his weary eyes: 3 a.m., March 4, only a few more hours
The red tail lights of a lone 18-wheeler - his only company on
the span - winked in the distance.
Backus dipped into the first tunnel - a whoosh of bright lights
- then back up to the blackness. The tractor-trailer was still
there, about a quarter-mile ahead. A panorama of rugged beauty
stretched all around - milky foam, half moon, clouds of ink. The
second tunnel came and went. Lights glittered on the high-rise
section of the bridge ahead, an arch of diamonds spilling onto the
Eastern Shore. A bend just before the rise swallowed the
18-wheeler's tail lights.
Suddenly, a volcano of sparks erupted from the curve. Then a
huge fireball shot skyward.
"My first thought was terrorists," Backus recalled in a recent
interview. "I thought someone had blown up the bridge."
Experience as a paramedic - much of it in the Bennetts Creek
area of Suffolk - sent Backus racing toward the explosion. He
skidded to a stop around the 14-mile marker, where a wall of flames
raged across both lanes.
The blinding blaze died quickly, leaving scattered pools of
glowing orange. Backus recalled the bite of wintry wind after the
warmth of his pickup, the hiss of flames as he picked his way
through the rubble.
At some point, he realized that the bridge was intact, that
spilled fuel had ignited, that something terrible had happened to
the trucker in front of him.
His eyes jerked toward the right-hand guardrail, where mangled
metal ended abruptly, leaving a gaping hole 250 feet long. There
was no sign of the truck.
Backus ran toward the broken concrete curb, slipping on
splattered fluids. He groped his way to the far end of the gap,
where the twisted guardrail resumed.
Hanging on, he leaned over the windswept edge, clicking on his
flashlight. The beam fell on coiling whitecaps surging between the
Over there: air bubbles - a cascade making its way to the
"Is anybody down there?" Backus screamed. "Can anybody hear
Over and over, he shouted into the vastness.
"Can you hear me? Are you down there?"
Only the wind and waves replied.
At Chief Clement Pruitt's house in Cape Charles, the phone rang
around 3:45 a.m. The sound was instantly recognized as bad news.
With 40 years on the bridge-tunnel police force, Pruitt has been
around for almost every tragedy since the 17-mile span opened in
1964. Vehicles have collided head on, punched through the
guardrails, or gone airborne over the barrier without a brush.
There had been too many funerals - 73 so far.
The last time a semi went over the side was in 1995, when a
truck topped the high-rise section, came upon a back-up and speared
through the rail. Its driver didn't survive the 75-foot fall.
Chances are better at the 14-mile marker, where the bridge
stands just 30 feet above the water. But with water temperatures
hovering around 40 degrees in early March, Pruitt knew the fall
could be the least of this trucker's problems.
"You don't last long in there this time of year," he said.
It took 10 minutes for Pruitt to reach his office on the north
end of the bridge-tunnel. By 4 a.m., the cavalry had been alerted:
Coast Guard, marine patrol, police divers, fire fighters and
Across Hampton Roads, nearly 70 rescue workers climbed from warm
beds. Boats and helicopters began beating their way toward the
Backus' account of the fire had Pruitt especially worried.
Unlike gasoline, the diesel fuel powering big rigs is slow to
ignite. Did a car get entangled with the truck?
"Are there two people down there?" Pruitt fretted. "Or even
It's not unusual for Lt. Cmdr. Rich Condit to get three or four
calls in the middle of the night. But this one snapped him upright.
"Good morning, sir," said his operations officer. "We have a
Condit, in charge of local Coast Guard rescue operations,
tiptoed downstairs with the portable so as not to wake his wife and
children. Within minutes, he was dressed and heading out of his
Chesapeake neighborhood for the Coast Guard base in Portsmouth.
Station antenna had already blasted a civilian SOS. Time was of
the essence, and the crash scene was remote. Maybe a die-hard
fisherman was out there, angling under the bridge. The spot is so
popular during certain seasons that "you can almost walk from boat
to boat," Condit said.
But on this night, the fishing grounds were apparently deserted.
No one responded on the radio.
Condit focused on figuring out who went down. Age, size and
health are vital elements of the survival equation. Lives would be
risked in the search. Condit needed to know when to call it quits.
Advice came from a computer program designed to calculate
survival odds. Given the bitter conditions under the bridge, a
typical 30-year-old, 180-pound man wouldn't last more than 2½
It took one of those hours for the first Coast Guard boat to
reach the crash scene. Its spotlights discovered a key clue:
hundreds of Pepsi bottles - two-liter plastic jugs and 20-ounce
screw-caps - bobbing among chunks of fender and other wreck debris.
"It was obvious that it was a Pepsi transport of some kind,"
Condit said. "We literally got out the yellow pages."
As calls flew between Pepsi franchises, boats and choppers
scoured search grids under the dawning sun. Satellite-tracked buoys
mapped the jumble of currents that swirl around the bridge-tunnel.
The Pepsis helped.
"Believe it or not, we watched them," Condit said. "We knew
anyone out there would be drifting in the same direction as the
A call came from the company at 6:36 a.m., pinpointing a semi
from a Salisbury, Md. plant as the most likely one to be on that
route at that hour. Its driver had loaded up at a Newport News
plant, pulling out just after 2 a.m.
At 7 a.m., a Maryland state trooper appeared at the Salisbury
loading dock. By 7:10, Condit had a name: Howard Hannah, 50, had
been behind the wheel.
According to the company, Hannah was a big fellow: nearly 6
feet, 340 pounds. New survival odds were computed. Insulated by his
bulk, Hannah could remain conscious up to six hours in the frigid
water, and alive as long as 10.
Around 7:30 a.m., two Virginia Beach police divers tethered
themselves against the ripping current and submerged into the
trucks fuel slick. The battered semi rested on a sandbar in about
20 feet of water. It leaned at an angle toward its passenger side,
The driver's window was open rolled down or shattered, the
divers couldn't tell. No one was inside.
A scan of the bottom turned up no other vehicles.
Condit widened the search.
At 8:30 a.m., in the Salisbury suburb of Fruitland, Charlene
Hannah was in her kitchen doing a client's hair. She expected her
husband of 14 years to walk through the door at any time.
A guard at Eastern Correctional Institution, Charlene dreamed of
retiring to go full-time with her home beauty shop. That day, she
had three appointments before her evening shift at the prison.
Howard - her gentle giant - often helped out in the mornings,
rinsing out little old ladies' hair as he wound down from a night
on the road.
"They loved him," Charlene said. "Said he had magic hands
that made their hair grow."
Those hands had gripped a steering wheel for most of Howard's
adult life. In buses and big rigs, he'd hauled everything from
chickens to lumber to senior citizens, all across the country. He'd
been working for PepsiCo for five years, making the Newport News
run five nights a week.
To him, the 300-mile round-trip was a gravy ride. He was happy
to be home so regularly.
The biggest drawback was the bridge-tunnel. Howard crossed it
twice a night, always worried about the wind. At times, it howls
across the water so fast that the bridge shuts down.
"He always said a truck would get blown over there some day,"
A client was steeped in relaxer when the phone rang. Condit was
on the other end, carrying out the task he hates most. "He told me
that Howard's truck had gone in the water," Charlene recalled
quietly, "and that they were out looking for him. I dropped the
Howard was a strong swimmer. Charlene clung to that in the wake
of Condit's call. Maybe her husband would somehow reach dry land.
But the closest shore was Fisherman Island, nearly two miles
north of the crash site. Few swimmers in the world could have
reached it that night.
Condit called every hour or so with an update. A state trooper
appeared on the doorstep to hold her hand. Noon dragged by. The
final call came just after 12:30 p.m.
Howard had made it to Fisherman, but not under his own power.
The current had carried his body there. A half-dozen men wrestled
him from the shallows - fatality number 74 on the world's longest
"I just don't understand what happened," Charlene said.
The wind was normal that night and investigations turned up no
mechanical problems with the truck.
"People keep saying he must have fallen asleep," Charlene
said, "but that doesn't make sense. That man always pulled over if
he was tired."
Deepening the mystery: No skid marks. Howard never hit the
brakes, despite the fact that he slammed up onto a curb, then
crushed nearly enough guardrail to run the length of a football
field. Not even the weariest could sleep through that.
"I can't stop wondering what his last minutes were like," she
said. "I keep picturing him in the water, really struggling."
At least part of an answer came in the mail when a Norfolk
medical examiner sent Charlene her husband's autopsy report.
Its conclusion: Howard had water in his lungs, and a seriously
ailing heart. He drowned probably after a heart attack left him
unconscious with his foot on the accelerator of an 80,000-pound
Once the fully loaded trailer crept too far over the edge, it's
likely that its weight yanked the cab off the bridge. He was alive
then, suffering only minor injuries in the impact. The cold water
might even have brought him around.
No one knows if Howard fought his way out of the truck, was
thrown out in the fall or floated out after drowning in the cab.
"Nothing could have stopped that truck," said Paul Burnette,
the span's director of maintenance. "If it was coming at the
building I'm sitting in right now and its made of concrete and
brick it would run right through it."
Within days, the truck was salvaged, the Pepsis collected and
the bridge rail patched. In no time, it was hard to tell anything
had gone wrong at mile marker 14.
Howard's absence, however, has left a hole of its own - one not
so rapidly repaired.
A few days after his death, 50 family members and friends
boarded a chartered bus. More climbed into a caravan 20 cars long.
All drove down to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, where Chief
Pruitt stopped northbound traffic for 20 minutes to allow for a
quick memorial service at mile marker 14.
"I didn't go," Charlene said. "They wanted closure. I
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05-23-2005, 08:01 AM #2
Sad story, but thanks for sharing it, as it shows the determination of the Coast Guard , the CBBT PD and the Virginia Beach Fire Rescue Department in making what they beleived could be a rescue.
Lt. Ray McCormack, FDNY
05-23-2005, 11:13 AM #3
- Join Date
- Dec 2001
- New Jersey
We drive to North Carolina several times a year to visit family and that is the route we take. It is an awesome bridge-tunnel system, but kinda scary to cross, more so at night. The wind does get pretty heavy at times and we have stopped on at the rest stop to let the winds die down some before proceeding.
"I'm gonna drill a hole in your skull and pump out all the stupidity"
"Never underestimate the Power of Stupid People in Large Groups"
Humpty Dumpty was pushed
Polishing the Chrome on all the IACOJ "apparati"
05-23-2005, 12:22 PM #4
- Join Date
- May 2002
Wow, that was quite a gripping account. Very sad story.
I respect firefighters and emergency workers worldwide. Thank you for what you do.
IACOJ CRUSTY CONVENTION CHAIR
RAY WAS HERE FIRST
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