Brendan McNulty is in trouble. As his van climbs the ramp onto the 14th Street Bridge, its headlights suddenly fail. The engine begins to sputter, and then it stops. Using what little momentum the van has left, he pulls to the shoulder and steps out, trapped on the darkened roadside between highway barricades and speeding traffic, wondering what to do next.
A look under the hood tells him a belt on the engine has broken loose and the van's water pump is leaking. McNulty, a bodyguard for Prince Bandar Bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia, is going to be late for work. It is 6:15 a.m., too early for most towing companies to respond. But lucky for him, McNulty has broken down in the best possible place. Moments later, Randy Jacobs, part of the Bridge Incident Response Team — a program funded by the Virginia Department of Transportation — pulls up behind him in his great, white wrecker to help get him back on the road.
"That was a good visual call, him seeing me in the dark like that," McNulty says. "I could've been stranded out here. He's really a good guy to be doing this."
Jacobs lights flares behind the van to warn other motorists and asks McNulty if he needs the van towed across the state line. Jacobs cannot tow him to Maryland, but within minutes he is chatting with a towing crew there on his Nextel radio, relaying the van's location. They are en route but before leaving, Jacobs promises to swing by again in 30 minutes in case the truck doesn't show.
"This job is a little like being the Maytag repairman," Jacobs says, stepping back into the cab of his heavy-duty DOT truck. "You spend a lot of time just waiting for something to happen. But then again, you get to help people out and they're always grateful to see you when they get stuck like that."
Founded in 2003 through an agreement between the state and the District of Columbia, the response team is tasked with clearing cars and trucks from the 14th Street Bridge, the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. It has since answered an estimated 1,070 calls for help from motorists like McNulty, one or two each day according to VDOT. The calls range from breakdowns to fender-benders to major accidents. The team's response time is quick, between 10 and 20 minutes depending on traffic conditions.
A two-and-a-half year veteran of the team, Jacobs is a good-natured good Samaritan. He works an 8-hour shift, from 4 a.m. to noon, patrolling the bridge in a regular route, looping across it into Washington and back twice about every 15 minutes in search of back-ups. He helps drivers in trouble, but his real goal is to keep the road open.
"If one lane backs up for just a few minutes, the cars pulling out of it can cause another jam and then another one," he said. "You have to get there fast. If they’re all backed-up, you've got a real problem because you can't get to the site of the trouble to get it cleared up."
Drivers on the bridge experienced just that kind of situation Tuesday, when a car stalled on the bridge causing a two-hour delay and a traffic jam that stretched from the bridge to Dale Boulevard, in Dale City. Jacobs was not on the job that day, assigned instead to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, but no other tow-truck driver was brought to replace him. The result was maddening for many motorists. Bad weather also played a role in the incident. according to Marilynn Alexander, a supervisor at VDOT's high tech control center near the Pentagon, where all of the major bridges in Northern Virginia and several miles of interstate are monitored through a network of 124 closed circuit television cameras. But that kind of tie-up has become a rarity thanks to the team, one that sometimes risks life and limb to keep bridge traffic flowing.
"If something falls out of a truck, let's say, or there's debris on the road, it's our job to pull over, run out into the lanes and dodge the traffic to pick it up," Jacobs said.
On most days, his job is pretty simple, but Jacobs has learned to expect the unexpected.
"Things will seem slow and then all of a sudden, it can turn out to be one of those days," he said.
One day he and a team of state police had to wrestle a suicidal man from the edge of the bridge. Another day he waited for an ambulance to arrive and held the hand of a severely injured teenaged girl who was ejected from her car in an accident. Drivers on the team are the first to reach many car wrecks but they are not required to be trained in first aid or CPR.
"You get your fair share of the gory details on traffic accidents on this job," he said.
Spotting a stalled tour bus on the bridge, Jacobs pulls onto the narrow shoulder to see what's the matter. Even if a vehicle isn't directly blocking traffic, he said, it can create a visual hazard for drivers, many of whom will slow down to look at it and risk creating a jam. The bus' engine is broken, but the driver can't get out to fix it because its door is pressed up against the railing of the bridge, preventing him from opening it. Holding onto the railing, Jacobs skirts the edge of the bridge to get near the bus' window. The driver tells him help is on the way, shortly afterwards another bus pulls up to help.
"That guy was lucky," he said. "Sometimes people breakdown out here but they don't realize what's happening until it's too late to get onto the side. That means they get stuck in the center of the road with traffic whizzing by on all sides. I've walked up on plenty of people who were just scared to death."
The best advice Jacobs has for motorists on the bridge is to be prepared for a flat tire, the most common call he gets. Drivers, he said, should know how to use a jack — most of them don't — and know where the spare is located. But one step most forget, he said, is to keep track of the lug-nut key that comes with most cars. Without it, the tire's lug nuts cannot be removed and what could've been a simple true change becomes a job for his tow truck. Jacobs drives a heavy-duty wrecker, one with a towing capacity high enough to transport small trucks. Response team drivers on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge drive an over-sized version of the same vehicle that can even tow a tractor-trailer.
The Bridge INCIDENT Response Team is not all trucks and drivers. The Smart Control Center supports Jacobs and the other incident response drivers on Northern Virginia's roads. From the control center, a staff of five transportation workers keeps their collective eye on everything that goes on out on the roads.
"You're never alone out here," Jacobs said. "That's why, if you break down, the best thing to do is just stay in your car because somebody will see you. If you leave it, that's usually when bad stuff happens."
On a series of digital monitors, control center staff watch for accidents, bad weather, even roadkill and dispatch police and emergency crews if the need arises. The center has a broadcasting booth to update motorists on changes along the road like construction.
During the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon, the center became a hub for federal agents and defense department staff after the nearby Navy Annex building was evacuated. Rooms in the control center were also used to house children from the DOD's daycare center.
A Sunday school teacher at the Lighthouse Baptist Church in Alexandria, Jacobs looks at his job as a way simply to help others and bring them some relief.
"God puts people in certain places for a reason," he said. "Out here, I don't have to sit behind a desk. I don't have to answer phones or move around the country. And if I get to be a blessing for somebody during the day, that's just great to me."