What began as a typical Friday night drive to their Delaware beach house turned into a harrowing ordeal that Lisa and Herb Sutcliffe likely will never forget.
The couple, who have lived in Olney’s Briars Acres community for 27 years, were looking forward to spending the weekend at the beach with their grandchildren.
As they approached the eastbound span of the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bay Bridge at about 8:30 p.m. July 19, they both commented that, unlike the previous Friday, traffic had been flowing well through Annapolis, the tollgate, and as they entered the bridge.
Lisa Sutcliffe, who was in the passenger seat, said they were in the right lane just as the bridge starts to curve, about 40 feet above the water. They had been traveling about 40 mph, but traffic began to slow almost to a stop.
They were driving a brand-new 2014 Mazda CX-5, and Lisa Sutcliffe recalls that the passenger side visor was down and she was looking into its mirror.
“I saw an 18-wheeler increasing speed barreling down on us,” she said. “Traffic was almost at a standstill ahead of us, and that truck was hauling ass. It was absolutely frightening.”
She didn’t have time to verbalize her fears to her husband, as she braced herself for the powerful impact from the truck, which she estimates was traveling at least 65 mph. The collision resulted in their car skidding sideways for about 100 feet, she said.
“My husband used to race go-karts, so when the car went out of control, he knew how to get out of the spin,” Lisa Sutcliffe said. “We ended up in the left lane and it was amazing how the traffic had opened up, so we didn’t hit any other cars.”
The Sutcliffes got out of the car and went over to the truck driver, who they said was Hungarian and didn’t speak English, and were huddled near his truck. As they were “exchanging choice words” with him, they heard noise and saw people leaning over the bridge. When Lisa Sutcliffe asked a bystander what was going on, they told her that a car had gone off the bridge and into the water.
“I was totally confused, and wondered if we had played a part in causing that young lady to land in the water,” said Lisa Sutcliffe. “We looked at our car and only had damage to the rear, so we knew that we had not hit her car.”
The ordeal resulted in the Sutcliffes being stuck for two hours while they gathered their belongings, were interviewed by the police, and filled out paperwork. Their car was impounded as part of the investigation.
Their son-in-law, who lives in Delaware but had been visiting his parents in Olney, was able to pick them up.
Lisa Sutcliffe said that neither she nor her husband was injured, other than being shaken up and sore.
“My husband thinks it would have been worse had we been stopped, but we were still moving a little,” she said. “We feel totally blessed; it could have been a totally different scenario.”
The driver of the vehicle that went in the water, identified by police as Morgan Jade Lake of Sunderland, escaped from her submerged 2007 Chrysler Sebring, and swam onto rocks at the base of a bridge support piling.
“When I heard her ask people to call her mom, I knew she had her faculties, and was very happy to know that she had survived,” said Lisa Sutcliffe.“I’m very proud of her; she was strong and very heroic.”
There has been renewed concern about the safety of the bridge, following this and other recent major accidents on the 4.3-mile twin spans.
“I feel if you are hit by an 18-wheeler on that bridge, you don’t have a prayer,” Lisa Sutcliffe said. “The guardrails are definitely not high enough.”
The guardrails on the eastbound span are 34.75 inches, or less than three feet tall; and 46 inches, or about four feet high, on the westbound span.
She said that the truck driver was young and very frightened, and seemed in disbelief as to what he had done.
1st Sgt. Jonathan Green, public information officer for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, identified the driver as Gabor Lovasz of Charlottetown, Canada. He was operating a 2010 International truck/tractor, pulling a 2006 Great Dane trailer, both displaying Prince Edward Island, Canada, registrations. The truck was operated by Bulk Carriers BEI of Prince Edward Island. Lovasz was not injured.
“People grieve in their own way, but he didn’t seem concerned with the girl in the water below,” Lisa Sutcliffe said.
Green said that an investigation is continuing.
“We are in the process of writing a report that is very lengthy and detailed,” he said. “It will be reviewed and approved by multiple levels. Then we will sit down with the state’s attorney to decide if there are charges to be filed. That could be weeks away.”
Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board announced that it was sending investigators to assist local authorities with the investigation to determine if there are any safety issues involved, and to make recommendations to improve bridge safety.
After their frazzling evening, the Sutcliffes decided to forgo their weekend plans and return to Olney.
As for driving over the Bay Bridge again, Lisa Sutcliffe said because it is something she cannot avoid, she is just going to have to work through it.
“I can’t say I will ever be comfortable driving across that bridge again,” she said.
“I saw death in front of me, there was no question about it,” she said. “It was a very frightening experience. But knowing we are okay is a wonderful feeling. We can move, have no broken bones, scratches or cuts — we just feel so lucky.”