Wrong-way crash on I-205 bridge jams the county (with video)

Pre-dawn crash causes no serious injuries but clogs morning commute

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian Breaking News Reporter



State highway 14, here approaching the Interstate 5 bridge east of Columbia House Boulevard, was a parking lot to nearly Camas on Monday morning.

Earlier coverage, including observations by the public.

A police officer examines the remains of a Vancouver woman's car destroyed by a wrong-way truck, background, on the Interstate 205 bridge. The trucker was arrested; the car's driver had only minor injuries. Traffic across Clark County was tangled for hours.

Desmond Moore/LensWide for The Columbian

Earlier coverage, including observations by the public.

A wrong-way semi-tractor-trailer collided with a passenger car on the Interstate 205 bridge before dawn Monday, triggering a countywide traffic jam that persisted throughout the morning. Tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Clark County motorists were affected, with at least one veteran commuter ranking the traffic as about the worst she’s ever seen.

The incident began long before most commuters were on the road. Someone first observed the tractor-trailer heading west in the eastbound lanes of Interstate 84 at 4:20 a.m., according to a Portland Police Bureau bulletin.

With law enforcement in pursuit on the proper side of the freeway, the driver of the rig veered off, then headed northbound in the southbound lanes of Interstate 205, police said. The pursuit ended when the tractor-trailer collided with the car on the Glenn Jackson Bridge, showering debris into both northbound and southbound lanes.

The trucker, Kenneth Eugene Burgess, 49, of Medical Lake, west of Spokane, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, reckless driving and two counts of second-degree criminal mischief. A records check found he has no criminal history in Washington.

He drives for Cheney-based TWT Refrigerated Services.

Katherine Emerson, 24, of Vancouver, was the driver of the sedan that collided with the truck. She suffered only minor injuries and was treated and released at a Vancouver hospital.

“By a miracle, she walked away with just a few bruises,” said her mother, Margaret Emerson. “Somebody upstairs really likes her.”

Traffic jams multiply

With all but one lane blocked for much of the morning commute, traffic on I-205 was stop-and-occasionally-go for about seven hours.

But the congestion didn’t stop there. State highways 500 and 14 were both stopped until late morning and traffic problems spilled into Vancouver city streets. Traffic on Interstate 5 was snarled until about noon, with gridlock stretching from Hazel Dell to the Interstate 5 Bridge.

All lanes of Interstate 205 were open as of about 10:15 a.m., but nearby roads and highways remained clogged for two more hours.

Kelly Michels of Vancouver spent more than two hours commuting to her job across the river.

“For 28 years, I’ve been driving to Portland and it’s never been this crazy,” she said.

Having heard of the traffic problems earlier in the morning, Michels left her house about 8 a.m. and tried several different back roads to sneak onto one of the bridges.

After spending 20 minutes at a standstill on Mill Plain Boulevard and taking more back roads to get onto Lieser Road, where she spent another 20 minutes traveling three car lengths, Michels tried to take Highway 14 to Interstate 5.

“The backup from the I-5 bridge was all the way back to Brandt Road,” she said before laughing.

By 9 a.m., Michels hadn’t gone anywhere. So she decided to drive to Stevenson to take the Bridge of the Gods, finally making it to her work near the Portland airport at 10:30 a.m. She admits she doesn’t know if it got her to work any faster.

“It was better to be moving than just sitting in traffic,” she said. “I’d rather be spending my gas driving somewhere than just sitting idle.”

The nightmare commute was shared by more than 100,000 motorists.

According to 2012 data from the Oregon Department of Transportation, an average of 135,891 vehicles cross the Glenn Jackson Bridge daily and an average of 151,498 cross the Interstate Bridge.

ODOT maintains the bridges, though Washington Department of Transportation funds 50 percent of their maintenance.

“This person made a choice and it’s amazing how one choice can change life for the person who was hit and injured and also so many people on a normal Monday morning,” said Abbi Russell, spokesperson for WSDOT southwest region.

Russell said the widespread backup shows how interconnected the highway system is. The timing of the crash, the fact it blocked three of four lanes and the police investigation led to the lengthy jam.

“It’s not something that you can do anything about,” she said. “It was a perfect storm, so to speak.”

Emily Gillespie: http://twitter.com/col_cops; emily.gillespie@columbian.com.

View raw video footage taken at the scene by Desmond Moore.

View a KPTV video of the of the tractor-trailer going the wrong way on the southbound I-205 Bridge.