It was just before 4 a.m. on Thursday morning when Augusta got the tragic news that another 18-wheeler truck headed to South Carolina struck the I-20 bridge railing and plunged into the Augusta Canal.
More than 12 hours after the truck cab went over the bridge, the Augusta Dive Team located the body of the 48-year-old driver, Cedric Miller of Hartsville, S.C., about 300 yards east of the crash site, according to Sgt. Michael McDaniel, a spokesman for the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office.
This overpass along I-20 by the Augusta Canal is quickly becoming viewed as an increasingly dangerous location for motorists.
“It is way too narrow across that bridge,” said Charlie Anderson, a trucker from Alpharetta, Ga., who frequently travels across the Georgia-South Carolina state line. “You just have to pray everybody is paying attention when you’re driving across that bridge.”
Quincy Talley, a local trucker who lives in Martinez, believes the bridge definitely needs to be widened.
“It doesn’t have enough shoulder on the sides of the road,” Talley said, as he stopped to fill up his truck cab at the Pilot Travel Center on River Watch Parkway. “If you have a blowout on that bridge, you are in trouble.”
There is no room for error on that bridge for tractor-trailer trucks, Talley said.
“I really hated to hear about the trucker that was killed, especially falling into the water like that,” he said. “It’s real dangerous.”
In the past few years, there have been a number of tractor trailers to crash off the bridge and end up in the Augusta Canal.
In August 2012, a South Carolina trucker struck the guardrail and crashed into the Augusta Canal near the River Watch Parkway exit. Fortunately, that driver survived the accident and was able to swim to shore.
But in September 2011, another trucker, 54-year-old Benjamin Cunningham from Bainbridge, Ga., lost his life when his 18-wheeler semi-trailer truck carrying plywood hit the guardrail and fell into the canal, according to the sheriff’s office.
For the last 20 years, Carlos Padron of Naples, Fla., has been driving his 18-wheeler all across the country.
“I’ve been driving since 1994, and everything is dangerous right now. Even more than when I first started,” Padron said. “With more and more cars on the road next to the semi trucks, you have to be overly cautious when crossing over a two-lane bridge like that one. Things can happen quick.”
Each and every day, Padron says he sees cars darting in front of him or another semi, causing the truck to swerve.
“There is no room to swerve on that bridge,” Padron said, joking that enjoys the water, but doesn’t want to introduce his truck to the Augusta Canal. “I live in Florida because I love the water, but not that much.”
Not only are the accidents along the Augusta Canal tragic, the crashes also threaten the city’s water supply, forcing the Augusta Utilities Department to react quickly.
The Augusta Canal provides about two-thirds of the city’s total water supply, pumping an average of 30 million gallons of water a day up to the treatment plant on Highland Avenue.
Therefore, officials are immediately alerted whenever anything occurs that might threaten the quality of the canal’s water.
After receiving notification of last week’s accident sometime between 4:15 and 4:30 a.m. on Thursday morning, a city utilities crew was dispatched to the I-20 bridge to determine the extent of the problem, said Utilities Assistant Director Allen Saxon.
“Once they confirmed what had happened up there, we shut the turbine down and stopped pumping from the canal,” Saxon said.
Because of the size of the gate and turbine, the process took between 15 minutes and a half an hour.
About 5 a.m., employees fired up the 2,500 horsepower back-up pumps, which ran until they were ready to start the turbine back up again.
Unlike the 2011 accident, when the semi carrying plywood crashed into the canal and sent the plywood floating down the canal, clogging the turbine screens, Saxon said the fuel tanks did not rupture in last week’s crash and the only oil released into the water came from the fuel lines and other incidental locations.
“We saw a little bit of visible sheen on the surface, but not much at all,” Saxon said.
In fact, Saxon said the truck was out of the canal by the time he arrived on the scene around 8:30 a.m.
To aid in the recovery efforts, the Utilities Department drastically reduced the flow in the canal, and after divers recovered the body of the driver, they started the process of refilling the canal.
By 7 p.m. on Thursday, long after any pollutants would have passed by the intake, Saxon said the city opened the gates, let water fall through the turbine and started pumping water on its journey up to the plant on Highland Avenue, some 330 feet higher than the canal.
Even if there were any residual contaminants in the water, he said the treatment process there would handle it.
Like just about everyone else, Saxon said he’s puzzled by the number of times this has happened.
“You think there’s a lot of Interstate 20 in Georgia, why do they have to run off into the canal?” Saxon asked. “Of course they don’t just run off right there, but it does seem odd that it happens with whatever frequency it does.”
According to the Georgia Department of Transportation, the I-20 overpass by the canal is scheduled for improvements in the next two years.
While the roadwork may be a massive headache for motorists, Anderson said a replacement bridge is clearly needed.
“It is good to hear something is going to be done,” he said, while stopping at the visitor’s center on the South Carolina side. “It should have been done long ago.”
The Washington, D.C.-based American Road & Transportation Builders Association appears to agree.
In April, it released a report analyzing the 2013 National Bridge Inventory database released this year by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
It stated that motorists cross Georgia’s 835 “structurally compromised bridges” more than two million times every day.
According to Dr. Alison Premo Black, the chief economist for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, the problem could escalate as states across the country face a slowdown in reimbursements for already approved federal-aid highway projects in August.
She insists there will also be no Highway Trust Fund support for any new road, bridge or public transportation projects in any state during fiscal year 2015.
“Letting the Highway Trust Fund investment dry up would have a devastating impact on bridge repairs,” Black said in an April 24 press release. “It would set back bridge improvements for years.”
Georgia estimates that it will cost approximately $14.8 billion to properly repair more than 14,700 bridges throughout state.
“The bridge problem sits squarely on the backs of our elected officials,” Black stated. “The state transportation department can’t just wave a magic wand and make the problem go away. It takes committed investment by our legislators. Members of Congress need to come to grips with that. Some of our most heavily travelled bridges were built in the 1930s. Most are more than 40 years old.”
While future funding may sound bleak, Georgia’s bridges actually ranked fairly well, 42nd in the nation, in the percentage of its bridges that are classified as “structurally deficient,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In fact, only six percent of Georgia’s bridges were given the classification as structurally deficient. And, fortunately for Augustans, none of the top 10 most traveled “structurally deficient” bridges in the state are located in Richmond County.
Although it might seem odd that there have been a number of crashes off the I-20 bridge by the canal, Augusta is far from alone when it comes to wrecks off of interstate bridges over water.
Just last month, The Virginian-Pilot reported that a tractor-trailer traveling near Virginia Beach smashed into a maintenance vehicle on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and plunged over the side, killing the driver.
Divers struggled to recover the driver’s body as the truck and trailer, still attached, floated westward into the Chesapeake Bay.
It was the 56th fatal accident, and the 79th fatality, on the bridge since it opened 50 years ago, but only the sixth fatality since the bridge was expanded to four lanes in 1999, according to the newspaper.
In May, two wrecks, one involving a logging truck and another involving a semi, occurred on a bridge over the Little Red RIver in Clinton, Arkansas, according to Fox 24 News (KFTA-TV) in Fayetteville.
Last April, a 40-year-old man driving a semi-tractor trailer beer truck careened off a bridge along Interstate 75 into the Manatee River near Bradenton, Fla.
The Bradenton Herald reported that the driver miraculously survived the crash, scrambled out of the cab and stood on top of truck that was partially submerged under water until emergency medical technicians could reach him by boat.
And a wreck in California in 2012 made national news when an empty gravel truck driven by Charles Allison Jr. smashed into a car carrying a mother and her young two daughters, according to the Santa Barbara Independent.
The truck plunged about 100 feet into a creek below, bursting into flames and killing Allison, while the mother and her children dangled precariously off the Highway 101 bridge in their sedan for more than an hour until emergency teams could rescue them.
Amazingly, the 11-week-old baby girl in the car apparently slept through the entire experience.
The fact of the matter is, when fully-loaded tractor trailers, which can weigh in excess of 80,000 pounds, run off a bridge, the results can be deadly, Anderson said.
“People don’t realize how much these things can weigh,” Anderson said, stepping into his truck’s cab. “We need drivers to understand we can’t stop as quickly as they can. Give trucks plenty of room.”