CAMP CREEK — Four pairs of white angel wings mark the spot of a tragedy that took the lives of a family from North Carolina on the West Virginia Turnpike on April 13.
“We are sick about this…,” said Gregory Barr, general manager of the West Virginia Parkways Authority. “They were a beautiful family. It’s a crying shame.”
The Salisbury, N.C., family, David and Christine Gilley and their two children, fourth-grader Jack and seventh-grader Grace, were traveling to visit family members when they collided with a tractor-trailer. The accident ripped the family’s SUV apart.
The driver of the rig survived the crash, which happened near milepost 22 at Camp Creek. Rollovers are not unusual on the steep downhill grades in that section of the turnpike, Barr said, but nothing as “horrific” as this crash.
Barr said the cause of the crash, which happened just after 5:30 p.m., is still under investigation, and it’s a process that will leave no stone unturned.
“We are in the process of taking a real close look at everything,” he said. “We have the State Police that run the highway patrol on the turnpike. They worked that accident and also called in a reconstruction team.”
Barr said that team is meticulous in recreating the details.
“They have not finalized the accident report yet,” he said. “We want to see all of that as we analyze this area, and find out what they discovered.”
The truck driver will be interviewed as well, he said, and any witnesses who may have seen the crash.
The state Public Service Commission will also examine the tractor-trailer closely for equipment or brake issues or any mechanical defects.
That will be limited somewhat, he said, because the rig did burn.
The state Division of Highways is also involved in the investigation.
Barr said the driver interview will be important, and questions such as the possibility of falling asleep will be asked.
“We are examining all of this and we want to come out with a thorough review so we can do what we can to make that area safer,” he said, adding that the authority has had calls wanting “something done” to try to avoid such tragedies.
The stretch of the turnpike between Camp Creek and Ghent has steep grades, and the tractor-trailer in this case was descending one of those grades.
“We’ve had six or seven rollovers during a 10-year period from 2006 to 2016 (between milepost 20 and 26),” he said. “But we’ve not had a lot of crossovers (a vehicle crossing the median into the other lanes). It’s mostly rollovers in that section and it (a crossover) is really unusual through that area.”
Barr said the turnpike, by the nature of the hilly terrain, has many grades.
“We have a lot of accidents at the bottom of tunnel hill, milepost 76,” he said. “Normally, in a hilly area tractor-trailers are getting out of control and build up too much speed and go into a curve.”
One out of every five, or 20 percent, of all turnpike vehicles is a tractor-trailer, he said.
But the question returns to how a tragedy that took the lives of the family can be avoided, considering the human error component of the causes of crashes.
“We will involve engineers to make it (the median) as safe as it can be,” he said. “With guard rails, you have the danger of vehicles hitting them and bouncing back into the traffic lanes.”
A median wall can do the same thing, he added.
Not only that, an 80,000-pound rig traveling at a high rate of speed can crash through guard rails and median walls, he said.
“We are looking at every angle,” he said, “anything we can do. If it’s warranted and needed, we will do it.”
An option could be the use of cables in the median.
“Cables provide an absorption system more than guard rails or median walls,” he said, explaining that cables can diffuse the force of the impact without bouncing the vehicle back into the traffic lanes while possibly preventing the vehicle from crossing over into the opposite lanes.
But motorcycles present a safety concern with cable systems as well as vehicles with higher bumpers.
“There are a lot of things to consider,” he said. “We want to make sure we hear from all the experts so we can do the right thing.”
Barr said the authority monitors every section of the turnpike and addresses safety concerns in the best way it can.
In this particular case, every scrap of information is being gathered, he added.
“We want to make sure we have all of our evidence and documentation,” he said. “We do not want a knee-jerk reaction that could end up causing more trouble.”
Barr said the authority will do everything that can be done to make that area, as well as all areas of the turnpike, as safe as possible.
Barr said the human error in crashes is sometimes inexplicable.
“You just don’t know what happened,” he said, adding that so many crashes are caused by loss of control and the reasons may be difficult to determine.
According to a report by the authority of statistics gathered between 2000 and 2015, there were 114 fatalities on the turnpike, with 15 in 2004, the most in one year.
Of those crashes, 45 percent were caused by failure to maintain control of the vehicle, and about that same percentage happened in good weather. Almost all crashes were the result of human error.
The age range most likely to be involved in a fatal crash was between 21 and 29, making up almost 22 percent of the total. Of that 22 percent, 71 percent were male.
The state Department of Transportation statistics support those figures.
According to a report from that department, January sees the most crashes around the state with Friday the day with the highest rate. More crashes occur between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. than at any other hour of the day.
Forty-five percent of crashes occur in clear weather, 45 percent are loss of control and 67 percent are in daylight. Not only that, 44 percent occur on roads that are straight and level, with 20 percent occurring on grades.
The highways with the most crashes in the state are Interstate 79 and Interstate 64 between Charleston and the Kentucky line.
According to an article in the Salisbury-Post, the Gilleys were traveling to see Christine Gilley’s parents in Irondale, Ohio.
A celebration of their lives was held at the Omwake-Dearborn Chapel at Catawba College, and candlelight vigils to honor the family were also planned.
— Charles Boothe is a reporter for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph