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While investigators study the weekend death of a Willow Spring man who fell through a gap between bridges on Raleigh’s Interstate 440 Beltline, state Department of Transportation officials have launched a wide-ranging study to figure out how to prevent similar deaths on 17,000 state-maintained bridges across North Carolina.
“We’re trying to determine the magnitude of this problem, not just with this bridge but statewide,” Terry Gibson, the state highway administrator, said today. “I’ve got our folks across the state ... studying every bridge in the state that has a gap like this.”
Carroll Lee Eames Jr. of Willow Spring had stopped his car on the Outer Beltline Friday night to help victims of a three-car accident on the bridge over Crabtree Creek, between Six Forks Road and Glenwood Avenue.
A Raleigh police report said the three cars were in the second lane from the inside median, which includes a breakdown lane on the median shoulder. Eames was in danger of being struck by oncoming cars that swerved to avoid the disabled cars, and he jumped over a low concrete barrier on the inside of the breakdown lane.
He fell through a gap about five feet wide, separating the twin bridges on the Inner and Outer Beltline, and dropped about 30 feet to his death on the rocky bank of Crabtree Creek.
DOT had erected a high fence on the other side of the Crabtree Creek bridges gap after a similar incident in 2005. That involved a driver, Todd Fletcher, who fell to his death after stopping on the Inner Beltline side to aid victims of a car crash.
Gibson said he did not know details of the 2005 case and could not explain why DOT had not installed fences on both sides of the gap.
But he said the gap may have been easier to see from the Outer Beltline side, where Eames was on Friday night, than on the Inner Beltline side, where the fence was erected after the fatal fall fall in 2005.
The Beltline is banked as it crosses Crabtree Creek, with the Inner Beltline lanes higher in elevation than the Outer Beltline. In the 2005 accident, Fletcher fell after climbing over the railing on the downhill side of the Inner Beltline bridge. Eames’ fall on Friday night came on the uphill side of the Outer Beltline bridge.
“This is a rare issue that occurs,” Gibson said. “This is not something that happens a lot. If I’m not mistaken, the accident in 2005 was on the high side of the bridge. To look over the edge it was not evident there was a gap there.
“This other [Outer Beltline] bridge is a totally different scenario as to what you can see,” he said. “From the lower side, you’re actually looking up at the side of the [Inner Beltline] bridge that shows you there is a gap there. “
Safety engineers and bridge inspectors across the state will analyze files on all DOT bridges, Gibson said, to find out whether there have been similar accidents elsewhere. Such falls often would not show up on police traffic accident reports.
DOT does not have uniform guidelines that make protective rails the same size on all bridges, he said.
In the past, DOT has erected similar fences after incidents on other bridges, where pedestrians fell or in one case where pedestrians threw bricks and bottles on cars and trucks passing underneath. On the Glenwood Avenue bridge over Crabtree Creek, not far from Friday’s crash scene, a similar fence was built after a pedestrian was hurt in a non-fatal fall in 2003.
“We have bike lanes or sidewalks on bridges, and oftentimes we might put a fence up. We don’t want the pedestrian to fall over, or the bike rider,” Gibson said.
He said it was too soon to say what changes will be made for the Beltline bridge or other bridges across the state.
“Safety is our number one priority, and it’s tops for us,” Gibson said. “We want to make sure what we do is the prudent thing.”