With a Bang — Not a Whimper

With a Bang — Not a Whimper

Interstate communications break down delays the fall.

Like multiple strings of Chinese firecrackers, their flash points racing toward the Potomac River, detonation charges spelled the end of about one third of the old Woodrow Wilson Bridge in less than two seconds. Then came the thundering crash making the earth shake throughout Old Town's Yates Gardens.

Scheduled for 11:59 p.m. Monday night, the actual detonation didn't take place until nearly 12:45 a.m. Tuesday morning due primarily to Maryland State Police not halting beltway inner loop traffic on their side of the river. Virginia State Police stopped traffic on the outer loop with a rolling phalanx more than 40 minutes prior to their counterparts on the opposite shore accomplishing their assignment.

At one point the drivers of a tractor-trailer and auto stopped midway across the new Woodrow Wilson span on the inner loop with the apparent opinion they could have a bird's eye view of the fireworks. It took a Virginia State Police officer to travel out onto the bridge's outer loop, exit his car, climb over the jersey-wall median and inform them otherwise. They immediately moved on.

All the while, John Undeland, public affairs director, Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project, positioned on the roof of the Hunting Towers Apartment Building with frustrated reporters and photographers from both written and electronic media, was attempting to learn why Maryland traffic was stopping and then restarting like a pesky, malfunctioning faucet. It was reminiscent of the old military adage, "There's always 10 percent that don't get the word."

Finally, at 12:40 a.m., with the new span now ghostly vacant and silent, came the five minute warning, signaled by blaring horns that could be heard for blocks in Old Town, for detonation of the 1,600 feet of steel girders stretching from South Royal Street to the river's edge. That's when the winner of the project's "Toughest Bridge Commute" contest, Dan Ruefly of Accokeek, Md., took his place next to the symbolic detonation device that looked like it predated the old bridge itself, awaiting Undeland's signal to push the plunger.

"Five, four, three, two, one, now," hollered Undeland. Ruefly, assisted by his daughter, Tiffany, complied as television camera crews and still photographers marked the moment then quickly spun around to record the actual detonation by specialists of Corman Construction.

Following the rapid fire blasts, thousands of tons of steel girders that formed the support for the roadbed of the old bridge crash to the ground on the south side of Jones Point Road as homes actually shook in those neighborhoods closest to the bridge. As Yates Gardens resident, Norma Breeden, a San Francisco native, described it later, "I've lived through earthquakes in California and Japan but I never felt anything like the way this house shook from top to bottom."

As daybreak broke on Tuesday morning, that reference to earthquakes seemed to be verified by the mass of steel girders laying entangled between the concrete pillars still standing along Jones Point Road. "That was really something last night," said Old Town resident, Tom Williams, as he stood looking at the rumble Tuesday morning.

A week earlier during an information meeting at Lyles Crouch Elementary School, Dennis Brown, project engineer, Corman Construction, whose subcontractor demolition experts "dropped" the steel, told the audience, "It will be more like a nearby lightening strike and clap of thunder than an explosion." Lightening strike yes. Clap of thunder? More like two trains loaded with dynamite in a head on collision.

Brown also predicted the concussion factor out to the 500 foot "clear zone" perimeter would be no more than point three. A concussion factor of point five can crack the seams in drywall, according to Brown. Final concussion analysis from seismic monitors placed in the neighborhood and at St.Mary's School on Green Street will not be available until later in the week, Brown said late Tuesday.

"However, we believe that the concussion factor was around a point one near Green Street," he said. "I was only able to get one reading immediately following the drop. We have to analyze them in relation to their distance from the drop," he explained.

Now the girders, after being cut to more manageable lengths, will be hauled away on flatbed trucks. Next comes the demolition of the concrete support pillars which will be accomplished by jack hammers known as "hoe rams."

RUEFLY, who won the right to bring down his old nemesis, was nominated by his daughter Tiffany as one of 312 nominations submitted for "The Toughest Commute" contest. He was selected by a panel of five traffic reporters who evaluated the entries after they were narrowed down to 20, according to Undeland.

A five-day-a-week commuter over 28 years, Ruefly leaves his Accokeek home at 5 a.m. to arrive at his electrical contracting office in Rockville, Md., 120 minutes later. He then endures another 90-minute trek home each night.

After crossing the bridge on the Beltway Inner Loop he comes through Alexandria and onto the George Washington Memorial Parkway which drops him onto the American Legion Bridge. "You have to be at the Wilson Bridge by 6 a.m. If its 6:01 a.m. you’re stuck," he said.

One early morning in September 1999 he was more than "stuck." That morning, while traveling at highway speed, he switched lanes, only to slam into the rear of a stopped tractor-trailer that was straddling the right lane and the old bridge's four-foot-wide shoulder. The crash left him with a crushed hip.

"I really don't remember much except the pain. They got me into the ambulance. We moved about 30 feet and the draw span went up. When we finally got going every vibration on the way to the hospital sent pain throughout my body," he said.

Now fully recovered, he still endures that long commute. When asked why he hadn't moved closer to work years ago, he answered, "I never gave moving a thought. All my friends live in Accokeek."

He did admit he was happy to see the old bridge replaced, although, as a child of eight, he had attended its dedication 45 years ago. "Thank God they finally did something about this bridge," he said prior to pushing the plunger on the symbolic detonating device.

Joining Ruefly at Monday night's event was another finalist in the contest, Tom Pettin of Alexandria. A 44 year commuter, he said of the old bridge, "This monster has been tormenting me since 1962."

His story involved breaking the timing belt in his car while crossing the bridge and coasting to a halt in the fast lane on the grating of the draw span portion because he could not reach the shoulder. "I got out of the car and walked down the center divide with cars and trucks flying by on both sides," he said.

"When the guy in the tower saw me he turned on the lights indicating the span was going to go up. That stopped traffic. The tow truck came and got me and the car. Then he let traffic move again," Pettin said.

He was also one of those unfortunate souls who spent the entire night on the bridge during the infamous 1987 snow storm when traffic became gridlocked for eight hours due to drivers losing control and blocking all lanes, barring rescue and road clearing equipment from getting through. Pettit, as Ruefly, was also an attendee at the bridge's birth and funeral.

In total there were five finalists selected by the panel. The other three, Stuart Roy, Elissa Soares, and Toni Knisley, all Maryland residents, did not attend the detonation event, according to Michelle Holland, public information, WWB project.

Once the debris is cleared away, construction of the second new span, which will eventually carry inner loop traffic across the Potomac River, will commence. That portion traversing Jones Point Park, on the Virginia shoreline, will be the initial phase.

The old bridge over the river, from the draw span to the Maryland shoreline will remain in place for 18 months. It is being used as a staging area for construction equipment. When it is demolished it will be removed by barge, according to bridge officials.