When an excavator on a flatbed truck struck a Baltimore Beltway overpass Monday afternoon, Patricia Charles and her husband, Rufus Charles, were in the next lane, just feet away, and watched horrified as metal tumbled into their path and a chain came whipsawing in their direction.

"The debris came down. We saw stuff flying. But God took care of us today," said Patricia Charles, who lives in Randallstown and is pastor of Touch of the Master's Hand Ministries in New Castle, Del.

Rufus Charles, the church's deacon, swerved to the left. A portion of an overhead sign struck the hood and the chain raked the side of their car.

"My husband is a good driver, and he proved it today," said Patricia Charles. "It could have been worse. We are blessed not to be in a hospital, and we are blessed not to be in a morgue."

State officials closed two of three lanes on the outer loop of the Baltimore Beltway and the two right-hand lanes of Interstate 95 southbound while crews dismantled the remnants and frame of the sign and cleared the pieces of the overhead catwalk. The overpass wasn't closed.

"There is a great deal of [structural] redundancy. If the engineers had any qualms, they wouldn't have opened any lanes," said State Highway Administration spokesman Dave Buck.

Later, at 10 p.m., the right lane of the Beltway at the accident scene and the two right lanes of I-95 were to be closed to allow for a full inspection of the overpass, Buck said.

Load-testing equipment was to be moved into place, and dump trucks loaded above capacity were to be driven at highway speed over the bridge to take readings.

The accident happened just after 1:30 p.m. when the flatbed, owned by Six M Co. Inc. of Whiteford, was moving the excavator from a construction site along the Beltway at Wilkens Avenue. The eastbound truck could not fit beneath the bridge, which has a clearance of 16 feet, 4 inches, said Greg Shipley, Maryland State Police spokesman.

"They didn't lower the equipment enough to go through. They left it raised, and it hit the structure," Shipley said.

The boom slightly bent one beam, hit a second beam "almost as hard," and scuffed a third beam, Buck said.

Officers with the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division were interviewing the driver, Marvel J. Bonham, 52, of Airville, Pa., reviewing company records and reconstructing the accident. Trucks are required to have a state permit if they exceed a height of 13 feet, 6 inches.

Six M officials did not return a call seeking comment.

Buck said the accident was "eerily similar" to a crash in June 1999, when an improperly loaded tractor-trailer truck hit a pedestrian bridge over the Beltway in Arbutus during evening rush hour.

One man was killed and three others were injured in that crash when the 42-year-old footbridge collapsed onto the Beltway. Officials said that truck's load was nearly 3 feet too tall to pass under the bridge.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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