RALEIGH — After the second person in four years plunged through a narrow gap between I-440 Beltline bridges, state Department of Transportation officials Monday launched a study of 17,000 bridges aimed at preventing similar deaths.
"We're trying to determine the magnitude of this problem," said Terry Gibson, the state highway administrator. "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 was driving to Crabtree Valley Mall about 6:45 p.m. Friday to buy gifts for his 10-year-old daughter and 3-year-old stepdaughter when he stopped to aid victims of a three-car pileup on the Outer Beltline bridge over Crabtree Creek, between Glenwood Avenue and Six Forks Road.
A Raleigh police report said Eames was in danger of being struck by oncoming cars that swerved to avoid the accident. He jumped over a 32-inch concrete median barrier on the inside breakdown lane and fell about 30 feet to his death on the rocky bank of Crabtree Creek.
The accident took place after dark on a stretch of highway without overhead lights.
"I feel like the state took my son's life away," said Carroll Eames Sr. of Smithfield, Lee's father. "He was just trying to help somebody. The state had to know it was dangerous."
It was the second fatal plunge from the Beltline bridges over Crabtree Creek in four years. Todd Fletcher of Wilson County fell from the Inner Beltline bridge after stopping on a rainy night in October 2005, also to help after an accident.
"After Todd's death, you would have expected DOT to entirely safeguard against this risk - especially at the very spot that Todd died," said Michael Patrick of Chapel Hill, attorney for Fletcher's father, Don Fletcher of Wilson County. The N.C. Industrial Commission is considering a wrongful death claim filed by the elder Fletcher in 2007.
DOT officials defended the corrective steps they took after Fletcher's death.
The department spent $31,400 in 2007 to erect a fence on the Inner Beltline bridge, doubling the guard rail height to 64 inches - but without adding a similar fence on the Outer Beltline bridge a few feet away.
Jon Nance, DOT's chief operations engineer, said the fence was needed because the Inner Beltline bridge is slightly higher than the Outer Beltline bridge. That could have made it difficult for Fletcher to see the gap between the two bridges.
But DOT engineers concluded that a second fence was not needed for the outer bridge. They figured that someone standing on the Outer Beltline bridge - as Eames did Friday night - would notice the concrete rail and fence of the higher Inner Beltline bridge nearby.
"We thought the ability to see the abutment for the other bridge was much more pronounced as you looked up," Nance said.
DOT will decide what to do on the Outer Beltline bridge after police and department engineers have investigated the details of Eames' death, Gibson said. Safety engineers and bridge inspectors will look for similar hazards across the state.
"This is a rare issue that occurs," Gibson said. "This is not something that happens a lot."
DOT will search bridge files and other reports to find out whether there have been similar accidents elsewhere, he said. Such falls often would not show up on police traffic accident reports, he said.
DOT does not have uniform guidelines that make protective rails the same size on all bridges, he said. In the past, DOT has added 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.
Meeker wants changes
Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker said the city drafted a letter Monday asking DOT to fix the Crabtree bridge and find any similar hazards in bridges across Raleigh.
"We have to make sure there are no others," Meeker said. "For this to happen twice now in the same place proves that at least some kind of structural change needs to be made at that location."
In the wrongful death claim against DOT for the 2005 death of Todd Fletcher, Patrick cited evidence of similar falls from the Glenwood Avenue bridges over Crabtree Creek.
DOT erected a fence there in 1977 - and again after Glenwood was widened and the gap between the bridges narrowed following a fall in 2003.
Eames wasn't the only person to fall off the Outer Beltline bridge after the three-car accident Friday night. Luis Jesus Coyt of Smithfield, a passenger in one of the cars, fell but suffered only minor injuries, Raleigh police spokeswoman Laura Hourigan said.
Eames, who grew up in Smithfield, had returned home Thursday from New York, where he was a groomsman in his friend Wei Zhao's wedding. Zhao owns the Peace China restaurant in downtown Raleigh.
The two met while Eames was doing maintenance work for the Seaboard Station shopping center. About six months ago, Eames was laid off, and Zhao hired him to do odd jobs around the restaurant.
"He was such an honest person," Zhao said. "I'm grateful to have had a friend like him."
Eames had been living with friends for the past several months until he found permanent work. His sister, Marie Tanner, said he was engaged to remarry his former wife in April. Together they had a 10-year-old daughter, Ocean.
Family members said Eames loved to help other people, even when it was inconvenient. It was common for him to stop on the side of the road to change a stranger's tire.
"And even though he never had a lot of money," said his uncle, Adam Eames, "he wouldn't accept any from the people he helped."
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