There it is, over on the side of Interstate 26 near Ridgeville: A simple white cross stands next to a pine tree with a gash.

You'll see another one a mile or so away: A brown wooden cross rests in the median with a ceramic angel figurine in a bed of purple, white and yellow pansies.

And just down the highway a bit, yet another, though this shrine is different: A Pink Floyd banner pinned on a pine tree hangs over a metal crucifix and the battered front grill of a red Ford. Attached to the grill is a plastic bag protecting three cigarette butts and a note that says, "I'll miss you, and I'll think of you always."

These roadside memorials are the only signs that tell you you're on the deadliest stretch of I-26.

A Post and Courier Watchdog analysis found that mile per mile, the lonely four-lane section around Ridgeville has claimed more lives than any other part of this important South Carolina highway.

During the past 10 years, this 10-mile zone has seen about three fatal wrecks per mile -- twice the rate of much more heavily traveled sections in North Charleston.

The analysis also reveals that many fatalities in the Ridgeville death zone happened when vehicles slammed into trees in the median or overturned on the highway's sloping embankments. Of the nine fatal wrecks in 2009 between Summerville and I-95, seven involved collisions with trees or roll-overs into ditches, records show. Unlike other stretches of I-26, this area has few cable guardrail barriers -- devices that have saved lives on other parts of the highway.

The Ridgeville zone is the worst stretch, but several other sections also have high fatality rates, including a cluster near I-95 and another through downtown Columbia.

The newspaper's fatality analysis focused only on I-26, the Lowcountry's economic and recreational lifeline. I-26 connects the state's three largest metropolitan areas, Charleston, Columbia and Greenville-Spartanburg. It takes us to football games and work, to family celebrations and school. It's our main escape route from hurricanes. It's also a place where makeshift crosses and skid marks herald violent intersections of flesh, metal and pavement.

During the past decade, 325 people died in 286 wrecks on I-26 in South Carolina, federal and state records show.

These people were killed in head-on collisions, by drunken drivers or when they fell asleep at the wheel. Their cars and trucks overturned, caught fire or slammed into trees. The people who lost their lives worked at cement plants, went to college or were on their way to celebrate Christmas. The oldest was 99, the youngest, age 4.

If you erected crosses for all these fatal wrecks, you would pass one after another, with some sections looking like small roadside cemeteries, particularly north of Summerville, as I-26 narrows to two lanes on each side, almost like a country road, and shoots toward the Midlands with a speed limit of 70 mph.

One cluster of 28 fatal wrecks stretches roughly between Jedburg and Ridgeville. Another cluster of 25 fatal wrecks runs between Harleyville through the intersection with I-95.

Both of these death zones pass through swamps and pine forests and a smattering of homes and farms. What makes these quiet areas so deadly?

Bad weather? The numbers don't back that up. In the Ridgeville zone, most wrecks -- more than 80 percent -- happened during dry weather.

Heavy traffic? Not really. About 30,000 to 35,000 vehicles per day travel on I-26 near Ridgeville, compared with more than 90,000 in North Charleston. But mile per mile, the Ridgeville death zone has twice as many fatal wrecks.

Boredom? Some officials theorize that the quiet nature of the road can lull motorists into a false sense of security. After leaving the urban highway clutter of North Charleston and Summerville, I-26 has few distractions, other than, perhaps, a cross marking someone's final drive.

"It's a dark and lonely area where there's not a lot going on," said Glenn Rhoad, Berkeley County coroner. "You can't say it's just the rain because there are a lot of times when there's no rain. I don't think there's any one thing, other than you might be leaving Charleston or Goose Creek with a full stomach, and the next thing you nod off and hit a tree."

Cables save lives

This zone, however, does have some notable features: Thick stands of mature pines grow in the median. Also, as the highway passes through this swampy area, the side of the highway often slopes steeply into ditches; a vehicle that leaves the road and hits this slope is more likely to roll.

Moreover, this stretch has few guardrails or cables to prevent a motorist from hitting these trees or rolling into these ditches.

Cable barriers are proven, relatively low-cost safety devices to prevent head-on collisions when cars cross medians. In 2001, the state Department of Transportation began installing cable barriers on many interstate stretches, including parts of I-26 outside of Columbia. So far, the agency had recorded more than 18,000 hits, or what they call "saves," because of these cable barriers, along with a dramatic reduction in crossover-related deaths. Meanwhile, North Carolina and other states have found that cable barriers cut deaths from crossover wrecks in half.

The Watchdog analysis showed that sections of I-26 with these cable barriers, particularly in the Upstate, have significantly fewer fatal wrecks per mile.

Meanwhile, in the Ridgeville and Harleyville death zones, trees are the primary median barrier. Cable barriers are few and far between. In the 53-mile stretch between Charleston and I-95, only 7.9 miles of the highway have cable barriers. Why hasn't the state Transportation Department erected more?

The section's steep slopes are one reason, said Brett Harrelson, state safety engineer with the department. Cable barriers "require a pretty flat approach slope, so in some cases, they wouldn't work." He said that he was unaware of any states that had used cable barriers to protect motorists from hitting trees.

"Some people also prefer trees," he said. "Every time we put up a barrier, someone suggests that we should put up trees instead." The problem: "Trees aren't a very forgiving safety design. For a driver that leaves the road, a tree can have the same impact as another car." Still, cable barriers have been a huge success story, Harrelson said, and the department is considering expanding its barriers in some parts of the state. Engineers also are studying whether some slopes and embankments along I-26, including those near Ridgeville, are too steep and need to be redesigned.

Lingering questions

Most fatal wrecks in the Ridgeville death zone -- about two-thirds -- happened when it was dark, and several happened when drivers fell asleep, like the one in May 2007 when Bernardino Hernandez-Diaz finished a 12-hour shift at a cement plant in Harleyville and apparently nodded off on the way home. Or the one Dec. 24, 2005, when Sherman Jones, 26, was headed to celebrate Christmas with his family and likely fell asleep in his Kia, hit another car and slammed into a stand of trees in the median. It was his birthday.

Some wrecks in the Ridgeville area were clearly avoidable, such as the one in 2006, when James Williams Jr., a driver who court records show had a history of problems, got drunk and drove the wrong direction and hit a truck head-on.

But many wrecks remain mysteries and have left loved ones to grapple with questions that may never have answers. Like the wreck that took the life of Johnny "Mendell" McAlhany, a 60-year-old welder from Mount Pleasant. On a clear morning Dec. 15, 2007, he said goodbye to DeAnne Stokes, his companion of 12 years, and headed up I-26 to go hunting at a hunt club. DeAnne later talked to a man who was driving behind McAlhany.

"He said he wasn't speeding: He was going about 65 miles an hour, and that he was keeping his speed steady, like he was on cruise control," she said. "And then he said it was just like something out of movie; he veered off the road, hit the gravel, and as soon as it hit the gravel, the truck started rolling down an embankment." She said the man told her that Mendell climbed out of the truck. "He really loved that truck, and he said, 'I messed up my truck. What am I going to do? I'm fine.' But he wasn't fine." McAlhany died later at the hospital when his heart stopped.

DeAnne often wonders what happened. She made a white cross for Mendell, hand-painted with his name on it. She placed it near mile marker 191, and tried to visit the site every day. "I was lost, just devastated. I went out there, and I felt close to him there. We had plans to travel and see the world," she said. Over time, her visits were less frequent, and then one day, the cross was gone.

Reach Tony Bartelme at tbartelme@postandcourier.com or 937-5554.