VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – Crews have suspended recovery efforts for a driver’s body after a tractor-trailer plunged off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel Thursday morning.
The U.S. Coast Guard said a witness contacted crews around 10 a.m. to report a tractor-trailer crashed over the side of the bridge near mile marker 15. A 45-foot Response Boat-Medium from Little Creek responded to the scene as well as the Cutter Beluga and a helicopter from Elizabeth City.
Tom Anderson, Deputy Director of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, told WAVY.com the tractor-trailer hit a maintenance vehicle before crashing through a guardrail and into the water.
Anderson said maintenance crews were there to patch cracks in the asphalt, and the driver did not see the lane closure until the last second and swerved. That caused the tractor-trailer to jackknife on the west side of the northbound span of the CBBT. No maintenance workers were hurt.
The trucker’s cab and trailer drifted through the pilings of the southbound bridge, and then the current took it about 1/4 of a mile west, into the Chesapeake Bay.
Crews with Navy Special Warfare Command were the first responders to make contact with the tractor-trailer. Amy Valdez with Virginia Beach Fire-Rescue said they attached a towline on the vehicle to control it as the truck began to drift into the bay.
Valdez also said the rescue mission transitioned to a recovery mission once divers found the driver.
“There were four Navy divers who were the first ones to be able to make contact with the victim trapped in the cab, and unfortunately, he was entrapped to a point where he was not easily pulled from the wreckage, and therefore, with the cab being submerged in the water, it made it a recovery instead of a rescue operation,” Valdez told WAVY.com.
A Coast Guard boat worked security at the spot where the driver’s remains and the cab were located. Around 3:30 p.m., a small craft advisory for rough seas sent the entire flotilla of first responders back to shore.
The Navy provided this official statement about its response:
Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of the truck driver and all involved in the search and rescue efforts. Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewman (SWCC), from an East Coast based Special Boat Team (SBT) were training in the area and able to assist the Coast Guard with Search and Rescue Operations until local authorities arrived on scene.
A Portsmouth dive team, called Crofton Diving Corporation, was called to recover the body and arrived at the scene around 6:30 p.m. in a 47-foot boat, according to Bob Crofton. Divers went into the water, but determined conditions were too rough and recovery efforts were suspended, at least until Friday morning.
10 On Your Side talked to diver Sam Smith about the attempt to recover the driver’s body.
“It was pretty rough out there. We left the dock some time early this afternoon and we got out there, it was about four to five-foot swells,” Smith said. “The diver got in the water, went down to the truck, was on the trailer, and we were able to get a cable and a line tied to an anchor to secure the trailer so it doesn’t move.”
Crofton said the tractor-trailer is now completely submerged in about 28 feet of water, resting right-side up on the bay floor. When weather conditions allow, Crofton said a team of 10 people will use a barge and crane to remove the tractor-trailer, a process that takes about six hours in ideal conditions.
“Cables will be run around the wreckage and then they’ll probably have a crane go out and pick it up and put it on a barge and bring it in to our facility or another facility. It’s a job and somebody’s got to do it and you want to take care of business, and they got loved ones too,” Crofton said.
WAVY.com also spoke with a witness who came upon the scene just minutes after the truck went off the bridge.
“Everybody got out of their vehicles and just sat there and stared,” Christopher Hamilton said. “All I saw was the trailer of the vehicle and the back end was floating up in the water and couldn’t see anything else, couldn’t see the cab of the vehicle.”
One northbound lane of the bridge-tunnel remains closed at this time.
When WAVY.com arrived at the scene, workers were drilling away concrete that had been damaged by the truck. There were big chunks of concrete missing and about 10 to 12 metal poles that hold the railings were gone.
10 On Your Side asked Anderson to describe what maintenance crews use to warn drivers of a work site on the CBBT. He said yellow flashing lights that alternate, an electronic sign that would say something like “road work ahead” about 1100 feet from the work site and a flashing arrow board in the back of a maintenance truck that serves as a barrier for workers.
Anderson said crews are not planning to change that procedure following the crash.
Stay with WAVY.com for updates on this developing story.