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Death in the Mixing Bowl: The perfect storm

The Beltway experience can be a deadly one for any driver

As the parents buried the four young women killed on June 14 in a tragic crash at the "Mixing Bowl" off the Virginia Beltway, the results of the State Police accident report may seem as remote as Mars; a peculiar postscript to the most devastating event any parent can face.

The accident occurred within hours of two of the girls graduating from West Potomac High School and joins the awful folklore of young people killed as they celebrate school graduations and senior proms.

But if not to the parents, the accident report may become vital to other drivers, to the Virginia Department of Highways, to the designers of the Mixing Bowl and to the political leaders as another indication that the jam packed highways in Northern Virginia can be deadly thoroughfares even for experienced drivers.

The evening began for the young women in the most joyous way. Lydia M. Petkoff and Renee N. Shelkin, both 18, of Mount Vernon, had just received their diplomas from West Potomac High School and were riding in a 2002 Volkswagen Cabriolet convertible with Sara R. Carter, 19, of Mount Vernon, a 2005 graduate of West Potomac and a rising sophomore at George Mason University.

The car was driven by Elaine "Nettie" Thackston, 20, of Troy, New Hampshire, another rising sophomore who was Carter’s roommate at George Mason.

A fifth passenger, 17-year-old Jena Rexroat, was the only survivor and has made no public statements since the accident.

The State Police news release raised immediate questions. It said that police had found liquor in the demolished Cabriolet convertible and that they could not determine whether the passengers were wearing seatbelts. Three of the four dead young women were thrown from the car, according to the release, and the Cabriolet ended upside down along the Jersey Wall guard rail.

Volkswagen advertises the 2002 Cabriolet as a four passenger vehicle, built on a VW Golf frame, so it would have been a tight fit for five people and one would be without a seatbelt.

Richard Thackston, Nettie’s father, said he had been told the bottle of vodka was "unopened and in the trunk." Virginia court records indicated that on May 4, 2006, Thackston was charged with underage driving after illegal alcohol consumption, a misdemeanor. Fines of $167 were paid on June 28, 2006. On June 5 of this year Thackston was charged with speeding and a hearing had been set for July 27.

Even if Nettie Thackston’s driving was unimpaired and her car not overloaded, she faced harrowing dangers entering the Mixing Bowl that June evening. According to friends, she was heading for a nightclub near Washington’s DuPont Circle from Petkoff’s house in the Mount Vernon area near West Potomac High School.

The more direct route to Washington would have been to go north on George Washington Parkway or Route 1 and across the 14th Street bridge.

"Nettie is not from around here. I can only speculate, but I imagine that she was confused," about which route to D.C. would be the most direct, said Joel Middleton, Carter’s boyfriend and a friend of Thackston’s from George Mason.

At 10 p.m. on a weekday evening this is still a very busy stretch of highway. Though the speed limit is posted at 60, the traffic moves at 75 miles-per-hour or more.

Entering and leaving the highway over the past two years has been daunting even to regular commuters. With the construction of the new Wilson Bridge on one end and the Mixing Bowl construction five miles west, ramp signs have changed on numerous occasions and at different times egress and exit have been shifted. On the night the girls died there were still dozens of danger cones and roadside construction equipment on the Wilson Bridge end.

For the first four miles there are no signs announcing the exits for I-95 going north or I-95 going south and the direction to continue on the Beltway toward Tysons Corner.

In other locations like where Route 66 exits from the Beltway or Route 66 entrance from Route 81, highway signs warn carefully of "left exit," since American drivers nationwide are conditioned to right hand exits.

Presuming Nettie Thackston was going to Washington, she would be looking for an exit marked "395 North Washington." An experienced commuter would know that this was a right hand exit and would have stayed right or moved right well before the Mixing Bowl.

The first sign that would have told her that, a major overhead highway placard, is placed one mile from the opening ramp to I-95 South and approximately a mile and two tenths from the Washington exit.

If she was in the far left lane, this would have given her just seconds to cross four lanes of traffic and exit right.

But if she was in the left lane and made no course correction, she would be heading up the ramp to I-95 south before she could change direction.

The only safe place from on rushing traffic is a white painted "safety zone" dividing the I-95 ramp from the Beltway and Thackston entered this safety zone. Had she stayed there, she would be alive today. But inexplicably, the State Police press release reports, "the Volkswagen then pulled out from the safety zone" and was struck by a tractor-trailer that was in the right southbound lane of the ramp.

"I think the road could be better marked. It needs to be made idiot proof. … There is inadequate marking. There are few roads traveled as intensely as the Washington Beltway and some of the little roads [in New Hampshire] are far more heavily marked," said Richard Thackston.

Thackston, who lives in his daughter’s hometown in New Hampshire, said he is familiar with the Mixing Bowl interchange because he drove through it coming back from Myrtle Beach, S.C. in March.

"I am an experienced driver and I found that interchange overwhelming. No one who has ever ridden in a car with me would call me faint of heart" he said.

"Even during the day, the Mixing Bowl is tricky for the experienced driver," said John Townsend of AAA. "There is a lack of visibility, there are work crews laboring along the way and at night massive lights illuminate work areas." Townsend said he found amazing the sheer number of cars the interchange is serving and will serve.

"There are so many factors that, to overuse the metaphor, it was the perfect storm," he said.

Thackston’s Cabriolet was hit by a 2007 Freightliner tractor-trailer pulling a box trailer filled with frozen food. This was worse then being hit by an M1A1 U.S. Army battle tank. The truck literally crushed the small car and drove it into the right Jersey wall.

Perhaps of all the dangers to Thackston and her friends that Thursday night, the giant truck was the worst. If the Cabriolet had been hit by a private car, even a big one, the loss of life is not likely to have been as great. But they were hit by a truck that cannot swerve, cannot maneuver even if there was time, because on a ramp, the likelihood of hitting other cars, jackknifing or turning over is very great.

Richard Petkoff, whose daughter Lydia died in the crash, said he is most concerned about large trucks being on the road with cars. Petkoff said that truck drivers are taught not to swerve when a car, person or object moves into their path. If the truck swerves, it is likely to cause a larger accident, he said.

State inspectors examined the truck and the driver’s background and no charges were filed.

But as the traffic in the Washington area has exploded in volume, the question why the Beltway remains a key connector in truck commerce along the East Coast has been a growing controversy.

Joan Morris, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said the primary goal of re-designing the Mixing Bowl was safety and ease of navigation of the interchange. She said there was no specific "left exit" or "right exit signs" advertising the I-95 connections that Thackston faced that night because VDOT did not regard them as "exits," but as continuations of the main routes.

Townsend disagrees, saying the lack of effective signage gives the motorist only a few seconds to react.

Morris said VDOT, is as anxiously awaiting the accident report as anyone else. "Whether it finds driver error or alcohol were problems or whether it finds design was a contributing factor. We stand ready to make changes."