The driver of a tractor-trailer was killed early yesterday in a three-vehicle crash that sent the 18-wheeler plunging into the Chesapeake Bay - the first time that a vehicle has plummeted from the bridge in its 56-year history, according to current and former officials of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police.
The early morning crash left a gaping hole in the wall of the bridge, forced the all-day closure of the eastbound span and created a virtual parking lot for miles on both sides of U.S. 50 leading to the westbound span. Last night, authorities reopened the left lane of the eastbound span but said the right lane was not expected to reopen until this afternoon. They warned motorists to expect delays today and to find alternative routes.
In addition to the tractor-trailer, the crash involved a Chevrolet Camaro and a Toyota Prius, police said. Two people in the Camaro were flown to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in serious condition; the passenger was later released, and the driver, identified by police as Candy Lynn Baldwin, 19, of Millington, remained hospitalized in good condition last night. The driver and passenger in the Prius were uninjured.
The tractor-trailer driver was identified as John Robert Short, 57, of Willards.
The accident occurred just before 4 a.m. on the eastbound span, where two-way traffic was being directed while the westbound span was closed for maintenance, said Cpl. Jonathan Green, a spokesman for the Transportation Authority Police.
About a quarter-mile from the Kent Island side of the bridge, the westbound tractor-trailer crashed into the jersey wall, taking out a 10- to 15-foot section, before plummeting 30 to 40 feet to the water, Green said. It was unclear how the other two vehicles were involved, Green said.
Although police were releasing few details about how the crash unfolded, the Prius' driver, Seung Won Hong, gave his account to The Sun.
Reached by phone at his Springfield, Va., home, Hong, 41, said he was driving east behind the Camaro when it collided with the westbound truck. Hong said the rig spun out of control, and the trailer struck the rear of his Prius. He heard a huge bang, then saw the trailer topple over the jersey wall.
Hong and his passenger, Ho Yoo, 42, were headed to Delaware to go fishing, he said.
"It happened very fast," Hong said. "At the time, I was shaken up a bit, but now I'm just trying to think clearly."
The body of the truck driver - an employee of a poultry processing company - was recovered from the bay at 5:40 a.m. Authorities set up a boom to contain debris around the truck, which jutted from the shallow water, while tow companies worked to remove it with cranes.
After the crash, officials opened the westbound span to two-way traffic. But its three lanes were not nearly enough to handle the crush of traffic on a sunny Sunday in August. Beach-goers, day-trippers, residents and those returning from vacations clogged the span and backed up traffic for more than 10 miles in both directions.
Bernie McManigal, 40, of Terrytown, Pa., sat dejectedly in a pickup truck around 2 p.m. while her passenger got out to walk a dog on the shoulder of the road. "We're wasting my beach time," she said before traffic inched ahead again
When the bumper-to-bumper crawl came to a standstill, many sport utility drivers turned off their engines, presumably to save gas. Motorists who managed to exit the highway produced long lines that snaked around the Wendy's, McDonald's and gas stations that line College Parkway to get another kind of fuel for the long afternoon ahead.
At a Wawa Food Market, five miles west of the Bay Bridge, motorists said it took them more than two hours to get from the bridge to the market.
"We're out of toilet paper, and there are about 70 people lined up to use the bathroom," said Michael Shannon, an assistant manager. By 2:30 p.m., motorists had nearly emptied the food cases of salads, fruit and sodas and drained the Wawa of more than two-thirds of its fuel - with no hope of a refill anytime soon.
Drivers took different approaches to dealing with the gridlock.
One woman danced on the shoulder of U.S. 50, the music on her iPod silent to those around her. A teenage boy stood atop the family car to survey the backup. Unable to reach public restrooms, many left their vehicles and walked into nearby woods.
By late afternoon, about a dozen emergency and utility vehicles, tow trucks and cranes were parked on the bridge near the crash site, while a number of sailboats and motorboats - mostly containing curious passers-by - formed a semicircle around the half-submerged truck.
With the rear of the trailer jutting out of the water, the back door appeared to be open and mangled. The cab was submerged.
Green said the recovery of the rig was "a work in progress," adding that crews have several options to remove it. He expects it to be removed today.
"Everyone has been watching and talking about how treacherous two-way traffic is," Lawan Thompson, 45, of Stevensville, said as she surveyed the scene. "I've lived here three years, and I hate to get stuck in two-way traffic."
Although it was too early for authorities to know whether the two-way traffic had contributed to the accident, a former chief of the Transportation Authority Police and a spokeswoman for AAA said that funneling traffic in both directions on a single span inherently carries more risks.
"Two-way traffic, whether on the east- or westbound span, is always very problematic and has the potential to be disastrous," said Gary McLhinney, who served as chief of the agency's police unit from 2003 until last year. No other vehicles have driven off the Bay Bridge in its history, he said.
Noting that motorists crossing the bay in either direction shared a single bridge for 21 years until the three-lane span opened in 1973, he added, "The mere fact that vehicles are bigger, wider and heavier these days makes two-way traffic potentially more dangerous."
Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the crash - like others before it on the bridge - highlights the need for additional ways of crossing the Chesapeake Bay.
"The reality is, they've got to do maintenance to the bridge. They've got to do it sometime," she said. "We want our bridges to be safe. But there are certainly some safety concerns when there is two-way traffic. The majority of fatal crashes on the Bay Bridge have occurred when two-way traffic was in effect."
One of the worst accidents in the history of the 4.3-mile bridge occurred in May 2007. Three people were killed and five others injured in a seven-vehicle crash in two-way traffic on the westbound span after a trailer came loose from a Lincoln Navigator that was towing it.
That crash, according to archives of The Sun, appeared to be the third triple fatality in the history of the westbound span. All occurred while the three-lane bridge was accommodating two-way traffic.
"This is a tragic loss for the Mountaire family," said Roger Marino, a spokesman for Mountaire Farms, which has breeding, hatching and processing facilities in Delaware, Maryland and North Carolina. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the family, and we'll assist the authorities in any way we can as they complete their investigation."
He said he did not know where the truck was coming from or whether the driver had delivered the load of packaged, processed chicken that refrigerated trucks ferry up and down the East Coast.
"Right now, this is just really something that is tragic for us, that we would lose somebody," Marino said.
Sun reporters Brent Jones and Richard Irwin contributed to this article.