Thursday, November 1, 2007

Driver Faulted in Crash on Span: Trailer Came Loose, but No Charges Are Planned in Fatal Bay Bridge Accident

Driver Faulted in Crash on Span: Trailer Came Loose, but No Charges Are Planned in Fatal Bay Bridge Accident

Oct. 25--The driver of a Lincoln Navigator whose trailer came loose on the Bay Bridge in May was "solely at fault" for the deadly multivehicle crash that resulted, according to a police investigation, but prosecutors have decided that they have no grounds for charging him with any traffic offenses.

Three Eastern Shore men died in the seven-vehicle collision May 10, which closed the westbound span of the bridge well into the night and backed up traffic for miles.

A report released yesterday by the Maryland Transportation Authority Police said the driver of the Navigator, Stephen A. Burt of Rockville, was responsible for the deadly chain of events.

It concluded that there was no evidence that Burt had used a safety hitch pin to secure the single-axle trailer to his vehicle. Without that pin to hold the latch lever in place, the trailer came loose as it bounced on the westbound span of the bridge, according to the report.

Investigators also determined that the chains used to pull the trailer were too long, allowing the front of the trailer to hit the ground.

Nevertheless, the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office concluded that "no current regulations exist" that would justify charges in the case.

"This appears to be a tragic accident, as it is unlikely that a reasonable person would have anticipated that the trailer would break loose," Deputy State's Attorney William D. Roessler wrote in an Oct. 2 letter to Marcus Brown, chief of the Transportation Authority Police. "Therefore, there is insufficient evidence to support any traffic charges in this case, including negligent driving."

Cpl. Jonathan Green, spokesman for the Transportation Authority Police, explained that federal and state laws address the proper securing of full-size trailers, but not small, noncommercial trailers such as the one-axle unit that came loose.

Reached by phone at home yesterday, Burt, 45, said, "I'm not interested in talking to a reporter. Thank you."

The state's attorney's decision brought an angry response from a woman whose son and husband died in the crash and who said charges should have been filed.

"My whole life has changed. I'm here alone. I don't have any more laughter and smiles on my face," said Missy Orff. Neither the police nor the Anne Arundel state's attorney's office had informed her that charges would not be brought, she said, adding that she learned of the decision yesterday from television news reports.

Kristin Riggin, a spokeswoman for State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, said prosecutors had had no previous contact with the families and thought the police would notify victims' survivors.

"It's very upsetting to learn that Mrs. Orff would find out from the media about this situation," Riggin said. She said the state's attorney's office would call survivors to explain its decision.

Green, the police spokesman, said that in many cases, the department does contact the families about decisions on charges. "Unfortunately, anticipated litigation prevented us from doing so in this case," he said.

Debbie Ingle, the widow of the third victim, could not be reached for comment.

Burt apparently will not face traffic charges, but the results of the investigation could play a part in any civil actions that result from the crash.

The police report concluded that none of the other drivers involved in the crash contributed to the accident, which occurred while the westbound span was carrying two-way traffic to relieve eastbound congestion.

Jonathan R. Orff and Randall R. Orff of Millington in Kent County were killed when their eastbound red Ford pickup truck swerved to avoid the trailer, rolled over and was struck by several westbound vehicles. Jonathan Orff, 29, the driver, and Randall Orff, 47, his father, were returning from work to their Eastern Shore home. They were pronounced dead at the scene.

James Hewitt Ingle, 44, of Preston in Caroline County was killed when his westbound Honda Civic hit the Orffs' car in the middle lane. His car's roof was crushed, and the car was hit by a flatbed truck in the right lane. He also died at the scene.

Photos released with the accident report showed the Orffs' pickup truck and Ingle's Civic reduced to twisted heaps of metal after they came to rest against the bridge's guardrails.

The report does not contradict previous accounts of the crash but adds details about the sequence of events after the trailer came loose. It also includes transcripts of interviews with two surviving drivers, Burt and Miguel A. Heredia of Edgewater.

Heredia, a van driver who said he had been watching the Navigator's trailer because he was interested in acquiring one, said he saw the trailer bouncing before it came loose. He said the trailer was struck by the Orffs' pickup truck, which he saw roll over, before the trailer careened into the right lane and struck his van.

According to investigators, after Ingle's vehicle struck the Orffs' truck, three other westbound vehicles -- including a flatbed truck and a tractor-trailer hauling a load of animal fat -- became involved. The drivers of two of those vehicles were hospitalized.

The report does not address whether two-way operations on the three-lane westbound bridge -- a common practice during peak evening traffic -- might have contributed to the collision. Shortly after the crash, Brown said two-way traffic was not a factor, and his spokesman held to that position yesterday.

"At this point, there's no evidence two-way was a factor," Green said. "That's the way we look at it."

Paul Bekman, Missy Orff's Baltimore-based attorney, said he is "absolutely" looking at the issue of two-way operations as a potential basis for legal action against the Maryland Transportation Authority.

Riggin, the state's attorney's spokeswoman, said she expects Maryland prosecutors to study whether there is a need to "better define" state laws on trailer hitches.

"Certainly, the laws that govern traffic safety when it comes to matters such as this will be looked at and considered for possible legislation before the General Assembly," she said.


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