A Fireball, Then a Frantic Scramble to Save a Trucker in Virginia

A volcano of sparks erupted from the curve. Then a huge fireball shot skyward.

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