Baltimore Police Officer Teresa Rigby was handling the most routine call on one of the city's most treacherous roads.
Just three years out of the academy, the officer was watching a tow truck driver hook up a disabled car on the northbound Jones Falls Expressway — an elevated, curving highway with narrow breakdown lanes and lined with Jersey barriers marred with scrapes from cars whose drivers veered out of their lanes.
It's a stretch of road where, a former police official says, officers hesitate to pull over speeders because it's too dangerous to stop.
At 9:20 a.m., a black Saab struck the back of Rigby's cruiser just south of Cold Spring Lane, hitting or forcing her off the highway and onto the parking lot of a Pepsi plant some 30 feet below.
"All you seen was her going over," said Butch Dews, 63, who was working at a nearby construction site and looked up when he heard a car braking and tires screeching.
The 27-year-old officer was rushed to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where she was listed in critical condition with injuries that included multiple leg fractures.
Dr. Thomas Scalea, physician-in-chief of the trauma center, told reporters before 1 p.m. that Rigby was on life support and would be going into surgery. Rigby had "arrived arousable but not awake," Scalea said.
She was "still in a very dynamic stage of care," and doctors needed to stabilize her before surgery, the doctor said. Hours later, the city police union president, Robert F. Cherry, visited the hospital and said that Rigby was "going to be fine."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she spoke with the officer's family and said they were "remarkably calm." Relatives and fellow police officers visited her at the hospital. "Everybody's praying for a speedy recovery," the mayor said.
The crash that closed the busy highway for four hours was a reminder that the greatest danger for police officers is cars, even in a city fraught with gun crime.
For the past decade, auto-related accidents were the leading cause of death for police, said Chris Cosgriff, executive director of the Officer Down Memorial Page Inc., a nonprofit that honors fallen officers nationwide. Baltimore Police lost two officers to traffic-related fatalities last fall.
Cherry said he has asked the Police Department's new chief of patrol, Col. Dean Palmere, to require multiple officers to respond to traffic stops or accident scenes on the highway. "It's another example of how dangerous I-83 is," he said. "We've got to make sure that there's multiple cars to assist. Teresa was on her own."
Legislators have been tweaking laws in response to officer safety concerns. Several jurisdictions banned policies that had officers step into roads to flag down speeding motorists, and in October, a state law took effect requiring drivers to move over one lane or to slow down when passing emergency vehicles on the side of the road with flashing lights.
"The intent of the 'move over' law is to provide that barrier of safety for any emergency responders," said Maryland State Police spokeswoman Elena Russo.
"Anybody who's distracted behind the wheel, on their cellphone or just not paying attention, they all put our emergency responders, our police officers, put them all in harm's way," she said.
Despite several pushes to get the word out, officials say few motorists are aware of the law. Violators face a $110 fine and one point on their licenses. If the violation causes a crash, the penalty increases to $150 and three points. The fine for fatal crashes, or those that cause serious injury, is $750 and three points, Russo said.
Cosgriff said he frequently sees people violating move-over laws. "There's a lot of room for enforcement here," he said. "Not only is it the law, but to me it's common sense."
Maryland State Police troopers take officer survival skills and traffic safety courses at the academy, Russo said.
Troopers are taught alternative approaches to traffic stops and are urged to approach on the passenger side, she said. "It's a safer approach than hugging the edge line," she said.
They may also position their vehicles on a diagonal to create a barrier, Russo said. But troopers make a decision on how to approach the scene based on their own judgment, she said.
Gary McLhinney, the former Maryland Transportation Authority Police chief and former city police union president, said he was driving on I-83 and saw Rigby with the disabled vehicle moments before the crash. He said she was on the passenger side, between the vehicle and the jersey barrier, as officers are trained to do to avoid being clipped by passing vehicles.
"Training-wise, she was doing exactly what you're supposed to do. But that all goes out the window when something like this happens," he said.
The accident shut the northbound JFX from Falls Road to Cold Spring Lane for nearly four hours. Drivers headed south encountered significant slowdowns. Police said it is unclear what caused the driver of the Saab to hit the back of the police car. They said the road was wet.
It's also unclear if the cruiser hit Rigby or whether she jumped out of the way to avoid being struck. Police said she went over the small highway wall and fell to the ground below. About a dozen spectators watched the aftermath from the West 41st Street overpass.
Derrick Wiest was sitting in his car in the parking lot at Union Avenue and Clipper Road, waiting to go into a nearby building for a job interview. The lot is adjacent to the southbound side of I-83 and across from the Pepsi employee parking lot, where the officer landed.
He heard a heavy crash that "sounded almost like a trash truck."
Dews, working on the construction site, said he was taking a break waiting for trucks to haul away debris when he heard a loud noise, then saw what he described as a "parade" of police cars rushing to the scene.
"It was like a shock," he said. "It's bad enough to go over the side, but there's nothing down there to break your fall."
Also injured were the drivers of the vehicle being towed, the tow truck and the Saab, said Chief Kevin Cartwright, a Baltimore Fire Department spokesman. He said their injuries were not life-threatening. Shock Trauma spokeswoman Cindy Rivers said the Saab driver was in fair condition.
Sun reporter Steve Kilar contributed to this article.
Officers fatally struck by cars
Breaking News Alerts
Cpl. Courtney G. Brooks of the Maryland Transportation Authority
Police died Dec. 31, 2007, when a drunk driver struck him as he set up road flares on Interstate 395 to prevent trucks from entering the city during New Year's celebrations.
Cpl. Scott Wheeler of the Howard County Police died June 18, 2007, after he was struck on Route 32 while trying to flag down a speeding driver.
Officer Luke T. Hoffman of the Montgomery County Police Department was killed April 25, 2007, when he was struck by a police car while in a foot chase of a suspected drunk driver.
Maryland State Police Trooper Anthony Jones was struck May 9, 2004, on U.S. 50 in Prince George's County while retrieving a tire at the scene of a crash.
Source: Officer Down Memorial Page