1. #1
    Sr. Information Officer
    NJFFSA16's Avatar
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    Aug 2001
    25 NW of the GW

    Post "I thought someone had blown up the bridge."

    The Virginian-Pilot
    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
    to go.
    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
    bridge's pilings.
    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
    big one."
    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 2
    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,
    trailer ruptured.
    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,"
    Charlene said.
    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
    bridge-tunnel complex.
    "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
    The Virginian-Pilot is published in Norfolk.
    Proudly serving as the IACOJ Minister of Information & Propoganda!
    Be Safe! Lookouts-Awareness-Communications-Escape Routes-Safety Zones

    *Gathering Crust Since 1968*
    On the web at www.section2wildfire.com

  2. #2
    Forum Member
    DeputyChiefGonzo's Avatar
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    Aug 2000
    Somewhere between genius and insanity!



    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.
    ‎"The education of a firefighter and the continued education of a firefighter is what makes "real" firefighters. Continuous skill development is the core of progressive firefighting. We learn by doing and doing it again and again, both on the training ground and the fireground."
    Lt. Ray McCormack, FDNY

  3. #3
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    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.A.C.O.J. Firefighter/EMT-B

    "I'm gonna drill a hole in your skull and pump out all the stupidity"
    Gunny Ermey

    "Never underestimate the Power of Stupid People in Large Groups"

    Humpty Dumpty was pushed

    Polishing the Chrome on all the IACOJ "apparati"

  4. #4
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    RspctFrmCalgary's Avatar
    Join Date
    May 2002
    Now in Victoria, BC. I'm from beautiful Jasper Alberta in the heart of the Can. Rockies - will always be an Albertan at heart!


    Wow, that was quite a gripping account. Very sad story.
    September 11th - Never Forget

    I respect firefighters and emergency workers worldwide. Thank you for what you do.

    Honorary Flatlander


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