Bay Bridge walk turns into a sweltering stroll; Water in demand as 40,000 brave early heat wave


Despite a scorching sun and a feeble breeze, tens of thousands of people turned out with their water bottles and walking shoes yesterday to cross the Bay Bridge on foot. An estimated 40,000 people took part in the 26th annual event on a day when temperatures climbed above 90 degrees -- 20 degrees higher than normal.

Before, during and after the 4.3-mile walk water was in high demand, and not just for drinking. It was poured on heads, on chests, in faces and down the back of shirts.

Still it was hot. "If you would look at the satellite maps without a date on it, you would think you were looking at mid-July," said Andy Woodcock, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

An accident on the westbound span of the bridge -- which, because of yesterday's event, was carrying traffic in both directions -- injured a Maryland Transportation Authority police officer.

A spokeswoman said Richard Lechner, 28, was traveling east in his patrol car about 1: 45 p.m. when he was hit by a tractor-trailer being driven by Juan Erles Gonzalez. Lechner was flown to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, but his injuries were not life-threatening. The accident brought traffic to a standstill for about 40 minutes.

On their first Bay Bridge walk, Sam Lamberson and Jordan Klaff, both 13, of Ellicott City, tried to keep cool with an innovative device: a plastic spray bottle with a battery powered fan.

The eighth-graders at Ellicott Mills Middle School, who traveled to Target on Saturday to buy the gadgets, explained that simply spraying water, which had long since turned warm, wasn't as effective.

By 3 p.m., the temperature at the Inner Harbor had climbed to 94 degrees.

It was 91 degrees in Salisbury and 92 at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Yesterday's heat did not break the record of 96 degrees, set in 1930.

Baltimore's normal high for May 7 is 71 degrees.

Although the jet stream bringing a Bermuda high pressure system over the state could slip away for temporary relief, summer is here ahead of schedule, said Woodcock, and here to stay.

The forecast for this week calls for a high near 90 today followed by slight cooling, with highs between 80 and 85 degrees through Thursday.

Some Bay Bridge walkers strapped miniature umbrellas to their heads. Others wore bandannas that quickly became soaked with sweat. A few walked barefoot.

Aside from the portable toilets, the most popular attractions along the eastbound span were two covered areas -- where people tried to cool off -- and two "filling" stations where water was available for those who braved the line.

Officials did not know how many walkers were treated for problems related to the heat, but said that medics removed people from the bridge. Heat was also the likely factor in the lower-than-expected turnout. The largest crowd was about 60,000 walkers in 1996.

During the last quarter of the trek, J. P. Bailey, 7, of Stevensville had had about enough, asking: "Why can't we just turn around and go home?"

"Because that would be even longer," replied his mother, Brid- gitte Bailey, 32.

The Bailey family -- including two kids in a stroller and two on foot -- were prepared with cereal, crackers, pretzels and about four gallons of water.

Bridgitte Bailey and her hus- band, Jason, said the kids asked if the walk was over before it started.

"We hadn't even gotten on the bridge," said Bridgitte, her face flushed from the heat. "We bribed them with snow cones, ice cream, whatever, when we get back over."

Teri-Lynn Koch, 32, of Annapolis placed a call on her cell phone to her parents in North Carolina during the first mile or so. "I just wanted to say 'hi' and that I did it," she explained after hanging up.

Some walkers who parked at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis stood in line for more than two hours to board shuttle buses bound for the bridge. The queues snaked up and down rows of parked cars -- more than 10 times over.

"This line is like five Bay Bridges," complained one young walker.

Sun staff writer Liz Atwood contributed to this article.

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