By Mannix Porterfield
Hundreds of motorists groused in snail-like traffic after a wreck that shifted West Virginia Turnpike travelers onto secondary roads in the Beckley area Thursday, but Manager Greg Barr says the incident management plan proved that it works.
Traffic moved like molasses on a chilly day after a passenger car veered across the median just beyond the Mabscott exit and struck a double-truck Fed-Ex trailer head-on, triggering a fire that caused first responders some tense moments, Barr said.
“It’s just a shame that it happened in the first place,” Barr said.
“It’s a double shame that the accident was close to the peak traffic period within the city for people going home from work and during work hours.”
Under the plan, devised in the aftermath of a huge snow blitz four years ago, the senior state trooper on duty confers with the maintenance foreman and a fire official after a smashup to ascertain the length of the delay.
If the stall is under two hours, the emergency detours aren’t employed.
“All we need to do is get a single lane open,” Barr said. “Within two hours, we’re not going to detour. It’s just too much trouble on everybody.”
The accident occurred at 1 p.m. and the detour remained in force until 6:30 p.m., but both northbound lanes weren’t restored until 10 p.m.
Since fire erupted, the immediate concern was the cargo. As it turned out, the bill of lading indicted the truck was carrying lithium.
“It’s a very hazardous, corrosive material,” Barr said. “You can’t let that come in contact with water. It initiates some reaction.
“Firemen were challenged with trying to get the fire out without getting water to leak inside. It was a double-box trailer. The front box was on fire and the second one had rolled over on its side. They were trying to be careful not to have water somehow come into contact. That dilemma added to trying to get the fire completely out and get it to stop smoldering.”
Southbound travelers were free to use the detour route. Had a chemical reaction occurred, the entire 88-mile highway would have been closed, Barr emphasized.
In its bid to avoid a collision, the Fed-Ex trucker jackknifed his rig but managed to free himself, sustaining only minor injuries. Barr said the driver of the passenger car was taken to a Charleston hospital, but a passenger stood along the highway, unscathed.
“The fire continued to spread and burned up the cab, but firemen got on the scene and stopped it from spreading to the final trailer,” the Turnpike manager said.
“We had to shut down the road to fly a helicopter in to cut the driver out of the small car and airlift him to Charleston.”
Detour Plan C swung into operation, moving traffic off Exit 40 at the split onto I-64, and from there, off Exit 124, Eisenhower Drive. From there, the detour shifted to U.S. 19 and back onto the Interstate at Exit 48, North Beckley.
“It’s a shame to have to do that, but think about how else you would reroute somebody northbound,” Barr said.
While some doubtless thought they could have taken a small, side road, but Barr said this doesn’t work.
“A detour route has to be able to handle tractor-trailers and cars, and it’s got to have amenities — rest rooms, food, gas stations,” he said.
“The detour worked as best as can be expected.”
A blizzard that dumped more than two feet of snow on the Turnpike back in 2009, trapping hundreds of commuters overnight, led the West Virginia Parkways Authority to devising the incident management plan.
Under that, the Turnpike now has four openings in the median wall and removable gates so travelers can be turned around on the north end if stuck between exits because of an accident.
“It’s tough for the public to be patient in a situation like that,” Barr said.
“You’re stuck in your vehicle for three hours, just poking along. It’s horrible. It’s not like it’s a planned event. We wish we had more resources to help people out around these types of things. That Turnpike is unique in that it’s kind of a mountainous pass that cuts through this mountainous terrain within West Virginia and there just aren’t other roads that can handle the traffic.”
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