The winds this April morning were giving Wayne Boone’s massive 2007 Freightliner tractor-trailer a good lashing. A driver for Butler Paper Recycling in Suffolk, Virginia, Boone steered the empty 18-wheeler up a stretch of Interstate 64 in Chesapeake toward Virginia Beach, about 25 miles away, where he would pick up his first load of the day.
The 53-year-old driver pulled into the eastbound left lane of the G.A. Treakle Memorial Bridge, known to locals simply as the I-64 High Rise, a four-lane drawbridge that traverses the southern branch of the Elizabeth River. On the span, the storm let loose its full force, finding no obstacles in its path but vehicles, which it pummeled. Rain hammered Boone’s windshield. Winds grew fiercer. Boone slowed, letting cars pass. It would be good to get to the other side.
At the bridge’s crest, 70 feet above the rushing estuary, the concrete road gives way to steel decking. Even in perfect weather it’s easy to lose traction on the grids. Boone’s front wheels met the slick steel just as a powerful gust blasted the driver’s side.
To Boone, it felt as if the wind lifted his truck clear off the surface. He could swear that he was floating for a second before being dumped into the right lane. He had no time to consider how such a thing could be possible. His cab barreled into the guardrail on the far right edge, mangling the metal barrier that protected his truck from, pitching into the water below. He struggled to regain control. His empty trailer, meanwhile, jackknifed to the left, skidding sideways at an angle to the cab.
Fighting both truck and weather, the steering wheel unresponsive, Boone was swept along about 200 feet, unable to get traction. Then a second gust, raging more violently than the first, blew through the open mesh of the bridge’s steel grid. It slammed into the driver’s side of the cab and simultaneously shoved it upward from below, lifting the cab, with Boone inside, over the edge of the bridge before dropping it again.
THE WIND LIFTED THE CAB OVER THE EDGE OF THE BRIDGE AND THEN DROPPED IT.
If he had had any hope of survival before, it was gone. The cab was now aimed straight down toward the gray-black water.
LIEUTENANT CHAD Little, 49, of the Chesapeake Fire Department, was on his way to conduct a CPR training class when an odd message popped up on his SUV’s touchscreen: “Truck hanging over the bridge.” He was only a minute or two away. He flicked on his emergency lights and siren and sped to the High Rise.
The traffic on the bridge was impassable. Little got as far as the drawbridge’s grid and no farther. When he stepped outside, the wind-blasted him. He tucked in his chin, walked ahead about 75 yards, and radioed in his assessment. The front cab of a tractor-trailer had gone over the High Rise, leaving its trailer still on the bridge. The heavy steel frame between the cab and the fifth wheel, where the cab couples with the trailer, had literally folded, and the cab, bent at a 90- degree angle, dangled over the river. Engine, hood, and fuel tanks had already fallen, leaving a slick on the water. The driver was trapped in the cab, hanging ten feet below the roadbed.
“This will be a complex technical rescue incident,” Little reported. That meant calling in Rescue 15, a team of highly trained firefighter-EMTs who respond when the unthinkable happens: an earthquake, a building collapse, a bombing, or some other disaster. He then switched to another channel to request the largest fireboat in the region. Working over the water in this weather, he needed assets below in case something—or someone— should fall.
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