Driver dies after tractor-trailer goes over Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel

A plunge off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is almost always deadly. For a few miraculous minutes Thursday – when a man was spotted standing on the trailer of his rig, bobbing in the bay – it seemed like this crash would end differently.

But Joseph Chen, 47, of Greenville, N.C., died on the way to the hospital after being plucked from the trailer by a U.S. Navy helicopter.

Chen’s tractor-trailer went off the southbound span in blustery weather shortly before 12:30 p.m. at the mile marker 15, near the Eastern Shore side of the tunnel, said Tom Anderson, the CBBT’s deputy director of finance and operations.

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data buoys, the water was 45.5 degrees when the truck went over.

Naval Air Force Atlantic spokesman Mike Maus confirmed that a Navy crew assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 2, based at Naval Station Norfolk, was in the area and retrieved the driver.

“They were on a routine training flight and saw the wreck,” Maus said.

Two Coast Guard helicopters also responded, along with a Coast Guard cutter and two other vessels dispatched from Portsmouth.

The accident is under investigation.

“God help us.”
That was the thought of Armistead Perry, a longtime friend of Chen’s, when he heard the news.

“Get him out of that truck and back to his family.”

Friends, family and pastors gathered Thursday at the home of Chen’s mother, Ida Little.

“He was off the chain,” said Billie Jo Chen, the driver’s wife. The two would’ve celebrated their 10-year anniversary in April. “He was an awesome husband.”

Billie Jo Chen said her husband had two children, a son and a daughter, from a previous marriage. She and Joseph Chen did not have children.

Chen had been driving for Evans Transport LLC for about 10 years, Perry said, and had been a driver for about 20.

The transport company, based in Washington, N.C., had no comment when reached by phone.

“Joe’s a great guy,” Perry said of his friend, who loved motorcycle riding. Chen was the president of a local motorcycle club in Greenville.

“He would do bike rides for those who were sick or in need,” Perry said.

A photo from a bystander who was in a vehicle on the bridge shows the back half of the trailer sticking out of water between the two spans, with the cab submerged. By 2:20 p.m., Anderson said, the entire rig was submerged about 2 miles east of the bridge.

Shortly before the crash, officials declared a Level 1 wind advisory, with winds over 40 mph.

At that level, camper trailers and other towed cargo are not allowed to cross the bridge-tunnel.

A half-hour after the crash, restrictions were hiked to Level 2, with winds gusting over 47 mph. In order to cross during a Level 2, tractor-trailers must be loaded with more than 30,000 pounds of cargo.

Ten vehicles – seven trucks and three cars – went over the side of the CBBT between 1964 and 2011, according to Virginian-Pilot archives. Only one person survived.

Since then, a truck driver drowned after crashing into the water in May 2014. It happened at the same mile marker, but on the northbound span.

In 2016, an Eastern Shore truck driver crashed through the side rails and survived. At the time, Anderson said the man was lucky to be alive.

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Thursday's fatal truck crash brings death toll on Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to 79

Thursday’s accident on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel marks the 79th traffic fatality since the bridge-tunnel complex opened in 1964.

That works out to an average of 1.5 traffic deaths each year on the 17-mile span.

Despite the often-harrowing winds that sometimes restrict travel or even close the bridge-tunnel, few fatal crashes have been attributed to wind pushing cars or trucks off the bridge.

In fact, only 15 vehicles have fallen from the bridge, according to bridge-tunnel spokesman Tom Anderson. Most of those have been tractor-trailers. Only two people have survived the fall, including a trucker who went over the side in January 2016.

Fatality rates have fallen since 1999, when a parallel bridge was opened to separate northbound and southbound travelers and reduce head-on collisions. Opposing traffic still passes each other closely in the two tunnels.

Before the additional spans opened, the commission that oversees the bridge-tunnel’s operation banned passing on the bridge following a particularly deadly summer in 1997, in which six people died .

Last summer, bridge-tunnel officials voted to award a contract to build the Thimble Shoals parallel tunnel tube. Construction is expected to begin in October and take five years.

Seven men died during the construction of one of the world’s longest bridge-tunnel complex between 1960 and 1964. Workers fell victim to a boiler explosion, a collapsed boom, electrocution, a snapped cable and an accident at the yard in Texas where the tunnel sections were pre-cast, according to Virginian-Pilot archives.


Semi plunges off Chesapeake Bay Bridge amid powerful winds

NORFOLK, Va. –  Driving through heavy winds, a tractor-trailer plunged off a bridge into the frigid waters of the Chesapeake Bay on Thursday. Even though the driver was seen alive and standing on the floating truck's roof, he was found in the water and unresponsive by the time a U.S. Navy helicopter reached him.

The truck driver died on the way to a hospital in Norfolk, said Thomas Anderson, deputy director of the Virginia-based Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel District. Anderson identified the driver as Joseph Chen, 47, of Greenville, North Carolina.

Anderson said investigators will determine if wind, or other factors such as a medical emergency, contributed to the crash on the 23-mile span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Anderson says 12 people have driven off the bridge since it opened in 1964, and 10 of those people, including the truck driver, have died.

The truck faced no travel restrictions because wind conditions were between 40 mph to 47 mph, Anderson said. However, earlier in the day, wind speeds were as high as 60 mph, limiting travel to cars, pickup trucks and SUV that weren't hauling cargo, according to the bridge-tunnel's website.

The tractor-trailer drove off the bridge shortly before 12:30 p.m., and the driver was rescued by the Navy a little after 1, said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Corinne Zilnicki.

Zilnicki said heavy winds had forced a Coast Guard helicopter to abort its initial rescue mission. Laurie Naismith, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, said winds also thwarted her agency's attempts to use boats to rescue the truck driver.

But a helicopter from a sea combat squadron was flying a routine training mission over the bay when the accident occurred, said Mike Maus, a Naval Air Force Atlantic spokesman.

"They apparently saw the accident happen," Maus said of the crew based at nearby Naval Station Norfolk. "The search and rescue swimmer went into the water and rescued the driver. And they hoisted him aboard the helicopter and transported him (to the hospital)."

The water was about 45 degrees, according to the website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Anderson said the investigation is being handled by the bridge-tunnel's police department with assistance from the Virginia State Police.

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