Motorists prayed, cried for help as ice fell from Ravenel Bridge
Like many drivers crossing the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, Regina Yost thought the span was finally safe Friday morning after it had been closed for nearly two days because of its slick, icy surface.
Yost, a flutist, was headed for a downtown rehearsal with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra when she noticed vehicles slowing in front of her.
Then she saw why.
Huge chunks of melting ice dislodged from the bridge's support cables and diamond-shaped towers, and they careened toward the traffic below. One landed on the windshield of Yost's Honda, sending shards of glass into her lap.
Yost was not injured, but she was one of at least nine people who called 911 to report that the ice damaged their vehicles about 10:15 a.m. Yost prayed for safety as she drove off the bridge while others cried into their cellphones for help.
Their ordeal prompted a six-hour closure of the bridge and another traffic nightmare for motorists who found alternative routes like Interstate 526 jammed with cars.
Though the bridge reopened for the heart of rush hour just after 5 p.m., Yost said she wouldn't drive over it for a while.
"I'm taking 526 for the next week," she said. "It was very dangerous, and I thank God for keeping me safe."
Nobody was seriously injured by the ice, Maj. Stan Gragg of the Mount Pleasant Police Department said.
Leland Colvin, chief engineer for operations at the S.C. Department of Transportation, had said earlier in the week that workers noticed no ice buildup above the bridge travel lanes. Confirming that, though, would have been difficult, he said.
But the possibility of ice falling on the pedestrian lane moved the DOT to restrict its use.
Tim Mays, an associate professor of civil engineering at The Citadel, said bridges are designed to handle added weight from ice accumulation. But when it falls is more difficult to control.
"The most practical and economical way to handle it is to close the bridge," he said. "We do the same thing when high wind speeds are expected."
After a storm dropped frozen precipitation Tuesday and Wednesday, the bridge was closed for 43 hours because of slick conditions. Road crews cleared the road surface of ice and reopened it about 3 p.m. Thursday.
But as thermometers climbed above 50 degrees Friday afternoon, another ice storm of sorts raged on the bridge.
Pieces up to 10 feet long, 1 foot wide and three-quarters of an inch thick broke free from the bridge superstructure and fell into the traffic lanes. Smaller pieces floated through the air and pelted the mainland in Mount Pleasant, witnesses said.
The top of each tower is about 380 feet above the road surface. Because of the height, some of the ice was falling with considerable velocity.
Vehicles swerved to avoid them.
Concerned for others, about 20 people dialed 911.
"Y'all got to shut that (expletive) down," one man told a dispatcher.
One woman was crying as she pulled to roadside on the bridge and called for help.
"I guess the top of my car is smashed in," she told a dispatcher. "I don't know."
Tom Sexton, who was heading downtown, saw the woman's car get hit just before a chunk smashed his windshield and punched the reading lights out of the roof of his sport-utility vehicle.
He said the ice chunks looked like spears capable of piercing the cars they hurtled toward.
He later stopped on Morrison Drive to meet with the police.
But he wasn't alone. Sexton and three other motorists filled out police reports to document the damage to their vehicles.
"It was like the ice all decided to fall at one time," he said. "But everyone was OK."
When Jerry Rea reached the mainland of Mount Pleasant, also with a busted windshield, he told a police officer who had been monitoring the conditions. The officer seemed surprised about the state of Rea's car, he said.
"It sounded like a brick," Rea said. "It stunned me. My heart was pounding. ... So much ice was falling."
Though officials stood by their decisions regarding bridge traffic, people voiced their criticism of how the situation was handled from the start.
Motorists aiming to travel between Charleston and Mount Pleasant also found themselves steaming as they sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-526.
State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, a local Democrat and longtime critic of Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, pointed to the drunken-driving arrest earlier in the day of the DOT's appointed chief, Robert St. Onge.
Stavrinakis said state leaders should have gone to greater lengths to ensure that the bridge was safe.
"Instead drivers were put at great risk of injury and tens of thousands more inconvenienced," he said in a statement. "This lack of leadership and accountability are flat out unacceptable."
The lawmaker expressed the same sentiment on Twitter, where some people said the situation was beyond the governor's and other state leaders' control.
"Please tell me what (Haley) could do," one person wrote. "Use her hair dryer on the bridge?"
Prentiss Findlay contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.