Bay Bridge gets weather alert upgrade after violent storm

The Maryland Transportation Authority is upgrading its early warning weather system for the Bay Bridge — allowing it to close the span more quickly when strong gusts hit, instead of waiting for sustained winds.

The agency has purchased advanced weather-monitoring instruments and is revising its policy about when to close the Bay Bridge in high winds to guard against accidents like the one on June 29 that nearly cost a truck driver his life.

Officials said they were caught flat-footed by the violent storm — a derecho — that tore through the region, leaving millions without power and subjecting motorists on the bridge to one of the most frightening experiences of their lives.

Giovanni Maldonado, the truck driver involved in the accident, remembers fighting an unseen force that was pushing his empty tractor-trailer truck across the bridge and toward the white-capped waters below.

"I felt helpless to do anything. The wind picked me up and I was just along for the ride," said the Salisbury resident, recounting the moments when he thought he was going to be swept off the bridge. "I'm still in shock."

The incident shook state officials, who at that time had closed the bridge for inclement weather only three times in 60 years.

"Things happened so quickly," Harold Bartlett, executive director of the MdTA, said Thursday. "We all, obviously, felt terrible about what happened and we vowed to never let it happen again."

A new set of weather instruments has been installed to better allow bridge operators to track approaching storms. The system is already working on the eastbound span and technicians are calibrating the gauges on the westbound side.

The project, with a price tag of $230,000, was on the capital budget, but not for this year.

"When this incident occurred, we pulled out all stops," Bartlett said. "We moved a lot of big things quickly."

The agency is revising its closure policy to include taking action when strong wind gusts are anticipated. At present the policy refers only to sustained winds.

The MdTA also is shopping for a weather forecasting service that is separate from the State Highway Administration feed and will allow as many as 25 officials to have access to information and provide feedback in real time, Bartlett said.

In the interim, officials are monitoring the weather and discussing the short-term forecast during daily morning briefings, Bartlett said.

Maryland's old procedure relied on a wind gauge — an anemometer — installed on the top of the Bay Bridge. Actual wind speed determined when officials would stop traffic. The policy is similar to the one used on most bridges in and around New York City.

But at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, any operator has the authority to close the facility in bad weather, said Chief Edward Spencer, director of operations.

"If we have a thunderstorm coming up on us, we shut 'er down. We don't wait for the wind to start," Spencer said. "You don't have to call me before you do it. That could be the difference between life and death."

At 10:10 p.m. on June 29, the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the Washington metropolitan area and surrounding counties, predicting destructive winds in excess of 80 mph: "This is a dangerous line of storms. ... These storms are capable of producing destructive winds in excess of 80 miles per hour. This is a serious situation. You need to take cover now." A similar warning followed at 10:17 p.m. for the Baltimore region.

At 11:15 p.m., as the storm approached, the anemometer on the Bay Bridge that feeds data to the transportation authority's operations center showed sustained winds "in the low 30-mph range," an MdTA spokeswoman said.

At 11:16, transportation authority police issued wind warnings, which flashed on the bridge but didn't close it. Six minutes later, a blast registering 80 mph raked the span, "turning the night into hell," Allan Charles, a prominent Baltimore advertising executive, said soon after the storm. He was several car lengths behind Maldonado's tractor-trailer.

Maldonado, 30, an independent tucker, said he had just dropped off a load of paint in Washington and was on his way home as he drove onto the bridge's right-hand lane at 40 mph in dead-calm conditions.

"Usually, there's warning signs flashing [in bad weather]. I didn't see any of that. All of the sudden my truck went flying sideways and I was holding on," he said.

The truck slammed into the concrete guardrail on the left-hand side and tipped.

"I went sliding toward the window, toward the water," he said. "I threw my arm up to stop myself and protect my face and it went through the glass. The windshield blew out. I went out through there.

"It was blowing hard and I held onto a pole. Then lightning hit and I let go — it was metal."

Maldonado was treated for cuts and bruises, and his truck was totaled. The eastbound bridge was closed for several hours while the truck was removed, and the westbound span was shut to clear debris.

The trucker said he hasn't heard from the MdTA since the incident and has never received an apology.

Maryland's policy was criticized in the days after the storm by motorists who had been trapped on the bridge, and by AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA, applauded the state's action Thursday.

"This is fantastic. It's going to be good for the MdTA and it's very good for the users," he said. "They were responsive and that's all we can ask."

Maldonado expressed surprise "that a bridge that big didn't have all those things already," but he praised the agency for making improvements.

"That's cool," he said. "But I'm still not going over it. I'll skip that one."