(For a witness' perspective on the crash, check out FOX 17's Courtney Perna's account, who was on her way home from work when the semi suddenly veered off the bridge right in front of her.)
On Wednesday, a violent accident rocked a Grand Rapids neighborhood, tied up traffic, and sent a truck driver to the hospital. I was driving home around 7pm that night; following behind the truck when it happened.
One day later, Richard Reitz, 40, is in fair condition, and tells FOX 17 what it was like inside the cab as the semi-truck full of yogurt rolled off I-196 and crashed onto the streets below.
“I had the Jake Brakes on and you ain’t supposed to do that; not when it’s rainy and wet,” Reitz says. “I went to flip them off, went across that bridge, started down that hill … I remember feeling the tires give out and cut loose, and I knew I was headed towards the oncoming traffic so I turned the wheel … to my right, I just wanted to keep it away from everybody else, so I choose the woods - or what I thought was the woods.”
Actually, it was a drop off, just before the bridge on westbound I-196 (west of US 131) over Valley Ave. His truck jackknifed and he felt his trailer push him over the edge.
“When I looked up and I seen the back of my trailer chasing me, I just said, this is gonna hurt,” Reitz remembers.
I watched as the semi veered to right and skid across the lanes. Then, it disappeared.
The guardrail along I-196 was mangled; the brush along the road – flattened; the fuel tank was ripped off by the concrete of the bridge and was lying on the shoulder. I ran to the edge and saw Reitz's cab ripped from its axles and separated the rest of the trailer - and it smelled like gas.
A few men approached the cab, they told FOX 17’s Lisa LaPlante, they could see the driver and he was alive, but there was nothing they could do to help him. Soon after, Michigan State Police arrived and Grand Rapids Fire Department used the “jaws of life” to cut him free from the twisted metal.
“I just wanted to make sure nobody else was involved,” says Reitz. “That’s the first thing I asked was ‘is anybody else hurt?’ The paramedic said ‘you were the only one.’ I said, ‘Thank God,’" he told me.
In fact, I was one of a handful of cars swerving all over I-196 trying to avoid an accident - amazingly we did.
Michigan State Police Sgt. Varga says the incident is still under investigation, but Reitz may end up with some kind of traffic ticket.
Don Lacy, the Safety Director at Reitz’s employer, Prime Inc., says he’s been a trucker for two years, and has never been involved in an accident, or any traffic-related incident. Reitz told me he’s even won safety awards for his driving. He adds that the 131 and 196 interchange is safe and he’s never a problem there, he drives it “all the time.”
His route goes back and forth between Reed City and Murfreesboro, TN. This time, he was planning a special trip home to Galien, near Niles, to visit his fiancé.
“I was gonna stop (for my 10 hour break), and give her her birthday presents that I picked up in Pittsburgh,” he says.
After his next the run, he was supposed to start a vacation. Now, instead of relaxing, he’ll be recovering at Spectrum Butterworth Hospital.
“I’m in pain, I’m in pain, they can’t give me enough to get rid of the pain.”
Reitz says he suffered a broken chest, two broken ribs, a compressed disc in his back, and a torn spleen, which doctors are keeping an eye on.
“…but I’m alive,” he smiles.