Second Beltline fence is planned

Aim: preventing falls from bridge

Staff WriterDecember 4, 2009 

— Now that a second man has died from a fall through a narrow gap between twin bridges on Raleigh's I-440 Beltline, the state Department of Transportation says it will build a second protective fence there.

Transportation officials initially discussed adding twin fences to double the railing height on both sides of the gap after the first death in 2005.

But they concluded that only one fence was needed. It was installed in 2007 on the Inner Beltline bridge over Crabtree Creek.

"We felt at the time it was sufficient," Terry Gibson, the state highway administrator, said Thursday.

Speaking to reporters a week after the death of a Willow Spring man at the same site, Gibson said the DOT will move quickly to build a second chain-link fence on the Outer Beltline bridge. At an estimated cost of $50,000, he said, a contractor will be hired to erect the fence by Feb. 1.

"It's a tragic incident, something that really breaks our hearts," Gibson said. "We don't want to see anybody lose their life on our highway system."

In both cases, the protective fence construction was preceded by the death of a driver who stopped at night on the busy, dark Beltline to help a crash victim on one of the Crabtree Creek bridges.

Carroll Lee Eames Jr., 33, stood on the Outer Beltline bridge in the inside breakdown lane about 6:45 p.m. on Nov. 27, waving his arms to warn oncoming drivers away from an accident.

He jumped over the low bridge rail to avoid being hit by a car and fell about 30 feet to his death on the rocky bank of the creek.

"That car was coming straight for him, so I think it was a gut reaction to just jump out of the way," said Robin L. Rapkin, 42, of Raleigh, one of five drivers involved in the pileup. She said Eames' warning enabled her to slow down and avoid injury when her Honda was sandwiched between two other cars.

Police said a man who had been riding in one car fell from the bridge and suffered minor injuries.

Rapkin said a third man also jumped but held onto the railing and then clambered back onto the roadway, unhurt.

'You can't tell'

"You can't tell you're on a bridge," Rapkin said. "At either end of it there's grass in the median, so you think it goes all the way across. I would have no idea there was a hole in the middle, especially in the dark."

Eames worked odd jobs, and family members said he had a reputation for stopping to help strangers.

State records show that Eames was a registered sex offender, after a 1995 conviction in Johnston County for indecent liberties with a minor. He served prison time for this and other offenses, including armed robbery and auto larceny.

On Oct. 8, 2005, Todd Fletcher of Wilson apparently expected to find solid footing in the 4-foot gap between the bridges when he stopped about 2 a.m. near a crash.

Fletcher, a former Navy SEAL, parked on the Inner Beltline and climbed over the 32-inch concrete rail, apparently trying to reach accident victims on the Outer Beltline bridge. His body was found the next day in Crabtree Creek.

Records show that DOT engineers began planning some kind of fix for the Crabtree Creek bridges within days of Fletcher's death. In June 2006 e-mail they discussed fences for both bridges, but later in the year they decided a fence was not needed on the outer bridge.

"The fence will only be installed on the median side of the inner beltline bridge - since it is the higher of the two median bridge rails," Ben J. Upshaw, an engineer who oversaw the fence project, said in e-mail dated Nov.6, 2006. Fletcher had fallen from the inner bridge, 13 inches higher than the outer one.

Upshaw and other DOT officials said Thursday they did not recall discussions about whether to build both fences.

One fence or two?

"It probably was a matter of 'If we start putting up fences, where do we stop?'" Upshaw said. "This probably came down to doing what needed to be done, to address the situation that happened."

Gibson said DOT engineers had concluded that someone on the Outer Beltline bridge, where Eames stood Nov. 27, would easily see the 64-inch-tall fence and railing on the slightly higher Inner Beltline bridge.

"We thought it would be evident that there was a gap there with the fence, from the way we had installed it," Gibson said.

"With the highly unusual nature of this accident, our goal on these bridges is to protect vehicles," he said. "In most cases, we don't really expect pedestrians to be on our bridges, so we don't design them for that."

But Rapkin noted that the Beltline has wide shoulders to accommodate cars that stop or break down.

"There are accidents daily on that road," Rapkin said. "Of course there's going to be people on the side of the road. People won't know what's there, and they can go over easily, too."

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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