Tire trouble starts chain reaction wreck on Rainbow Bridge

Published 6:08 pm Thursday, October 28, 2010

From the top of the Rainbow Bridge Thursday morning, Jessica Terrell found out what could be worse than the tire blow out she’d had just minutes earlier at the bottom of the bridge. A weird noise and a sudden tilt of her car signaled the worst — the spare had fallen off and was rolling downhill.

Her trip across the south’s tallest bridge, spanning 176 feet above and 680 feet across the Neches River, had gone from bad to worse in a matter of minutes and was now threatening her life, and the life of others.

Though she’d had been driving slow, and with a police escort, a strange noise began the terrifying series of events.

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“My tire came off and just started rolling down the bridge. I couldn’t believe what was happening,” Terrell told The News during a telephone interview Thursday afternoon.

With no shoulder to pull onto and the Neches River far below, Terrell drove as long as she could with the missing wheel. Metal grinding against asphalt, the 2002 Honda Civic nearly made it to the other side before it stopped immobile far to the left in the left-hand lane.

While other vehicles passed by in the bridge’s right lane, Terrell put her flashers on, got out of the car, and looked to see how bad things were.

“What I saw was not pretty,” she said.

As if the condition of her car stranded on the bridge was not dire enough, Terrell said the sight of an 18-wheeler barreling directly toward her made her terrified. Without thinking, she started running. She saw the tractor-trailer strike another car, saw that car hit her car, and witnessed her car become jammed against the bridge rail.

Before it was all over, seven vehicles and the 18-wheeler would be involved in a chain-reaction wreck just a few minutes after 9 a.m. Six people would go to the hospital with minor injuries and traffic would be snarled for more than an hour while high winds ushering in a northern cold front blew forcefully across those stranded on the bridge.

The multiple-vehicle wreck culminated what had started earlier that morning when Terrell left her Bridge City home en route to Lamar State College-Port Arthur, where she is a student.

On the Orange County side of the bridge, Terrell had a flat tire.

“It blew out right on the bridge,” she said. “I did not know what to do, so I turned on my flashers and a guy pulled over to help me fix the flat.”

An Orange County sheriff’s deputy and a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper arrived to direct traffic around the stationary vehicle while its tire was changed.

“While their lights were flashing, the man who changed my tire told me one of my lugs was stripped, and I should double back to a tire store to have it repaired,” she said.

With only one way to go, the sheriff’s deputy escorted her across the bridge with directions that she drive carefully.

“I was driving slow to make sure to get over the bridge and get back. I had reached the top and thought things were going to be OK,” she said. “That was before the spare fell off and started rolling.”

Port Arthur Police Sgt. Chris Segler said seven vehicles, including the 18-wheeler, were involved in the chain reaction wreck. A second accident at the top of bridge on the Orange County occurred just minutes after the chain wreck. The 18-wheeler’s driver was cited for failure to control speed.

“With all the traffic coming to a stop, a man driving a pick-up ran into the back of an 18-wheeler,” Segler said.

Though all the vehicles had some damage, and there were minor injuries, DPS Trooper Candace Evans, who assisted in the second accident on the Orange County side, said she was surprised it was not much worse.

“We’ve not worked a wreck like this in a while. When we do they are usually extensive,” Evans said.

Terrell was not among those injured. She said if she’d not gotten out of her car, things might have been much worse.

“There was pretty good damage to the end of my car, and even more to the front. I did not get touched at all. I am very thankful God protected me and everybody that was in the wreck,” she said.