Charleston's bridges cross troubled waters 

How to deal with jumpers, daredevils, and disasters

A car is left idling on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, and the body of the driver turns up floating in front of the U.S.S. Yorktown. A man parks his SUV sideways on the Ravenel with cryptic messages painted on the windows, leading to a three-hour police standoff and a bomb search in rush-hour traffic. An 18-wheeler with shoddy brakes sideswipes a Volkswagen and then wedges a police cruiser against the Ravenel onramp wall, trapping an officer inside. Charleston in 2012 has been a gephyrophobiac's nightmare.

And while people with a fear of bridges might find little solace in many of the year's bridge-related episodes, the two latest incidents are simply headscratchers: a pair of daredevils scaling the pedestrian safety fence on the Ravenel Bridge and a plumber on the lam taking a dive from Interstate 526 into the Ashley River.

The plumber in question is Corey Lee Wyland of West Ashley, who was wanted by Mt. Pleasant police on a charge of grand larceny when he dropped into the water on May 30. According to a police report, Donna Spitzmiller of Mt. Pleasant had been calling on Wyland to do handyman work at her house since December on the recommendation of a friend who had used his services. But after Spitzmiller discovered on Feb. 27 that $7,900 worth of jewelry and a $200 leaf blower were missing from her house, police issued a warrant for Wyland's arrest. On the day Wyland stopped his pickup truck on the William B. Westmoreland Bridge, a section of I-526 over the Ashley River, police were executing a search warrant on his house.

Other Charleston police, unaware of who Wyland was, stopped on the bridge to check on him. Sitting on the concrete safety barrier with his back to the water, he told police he had run out of gas and was waiting on his wife to bring him some. Wyland went over the edge shortly after the officers checked his name for outstanding warrants and realized he was a wanted man.

One eyewitness, Tarrell Zellous, says he was heading home to North Charleston in slow traffic that morning when he spotted Wyland sitting on the wall with his legs crossed and his hands in his lap. Zellous says Wyland made eye contact with him, smiled, and then leaned back and tipped over the edge. According to the police report, Wyland hit the water and started swimming with the current.

Zellous, who kept driving and stopped at a North Charleston boat landing, says he watched as a crabber took the officers out on the river in his boat, where they pulled Wyland out of the water and brought him to shore. Wyland was taken to MUSC, where a Charleston Police Department spokesman said he was "fine." A Mt. Pleasant police officer arrested Wyland at the hospital.

Wyland's story was the latest in an apparently unrelated string of bridge-related mishaps in the Charleston area, and when trouble strikes on a bridge, the news crews swarm and people get to talking: Will my morning route to work be jammed? Who's this guy making a scene on a vital traffic artery? And most importantly, is the bridge safe? While it's never possible to answer that last one with complete certainty, here are a few other mysteries we've managed to resolve:

What do they do about jumpers?

click to enlarge The Ravenel Bridge rises 186 feet above the median high-tide mark of the Cooper River. Jumping off at the highest point is like running from the defensive 38-yard line of a football field to the endzone — straight down. - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The Ravenel Bridge rises 186 feet above the median high-tide mark of the Cooper River. Jumping off at the highest point is like running from the defensive 38-yard line of a football field to the endzone — straight down.

First of all, it's no use trying to catch them. U.S. Coast Guard Operations Specialist Joshua Nichols says that the Coast Guard responds to every potential bridge jump with a bright-orange-and-white 25-foot boat and sometimes, if a person is already in the water, a helicopter. Their mission is to block traffic in the waterway and then retrieve the person if he or she does end up taking the plunge.

The goal, of course, is to discourage people from jumping in the first place, and police do their best to talk down anyone who's on the edge. Meanwhile, leaders from the police department coordinate a rescue effort with county marine patrols, fire department marine patrols, the Coast Guard, and any neighboring police marine patrols (Charleston, North Charleston, and Mt. Pleasant all have sea-rescue capabilities).

Jason Miller, a Coast Guard operations petty officer for Sector Charleston, says he's actually not surprised that Wyland survived the roughly 35-foot drop from the Westmoreland Bridge. Miller has been serving in Charleston for four years, and he says he has never seen someone die from jumping off of the low-lying Westmoreland or Cosgrove bridges, both of which connect North Charleston and West Ashley over the Ashley River. Of course, no one is saying it's safe to jump off a bridge. In September 2010, 22-year-old Jackie Lee Washington and his two roommates leapt from the T. Allen Legare Jr. Bridge, the southbound stretch of Highway 17 over the Ashley River. All three men survived the roughly 17-foot drop, but Washington, a proficient swimmer, reportedly got caught in a current. His roommates could not find him, and police discovered his body a half-mile away near the James Island Connector.

The dangers on the Ashley River bridges pale in comparison to the Ravenel Bridge, where the roadway rises 186 feet above the median high-tide mark of the Cooper River. "Very rarely is someone jumping off the Ravenel going to be recoverable in any kind of a — I don't know how to word this politely —any kind of a state where we're going to have a reasonable chance of reviving them," Miller says. He hasn't seen a single person survive a fall from the Ravenel.

Once a jumper is in the water, Miller says Coast Guard responders will only dive into the water as a "last-case scenario." If the person is conscious and wants to be rescued, he or she can climb aboard the boat via a back-deck cutout that is only about six inches above water level. The person can also choose to swim to shore with a Coast Guard escort following behind.

How resilient are the bridges?

On Feb. 2 around 3 p.m., when Phillip DeClemente turned his SUV perpendicular to traffic on the Ravenel Bridge, rumor had it he was carrying a bomb. Fears were stoked by the messages he had painted on the vehicle's windows, including "Game Over," "Stay Away," and "Happy Now." But as a bomb squad discovered when it searched the vehicle later, DeClemente was armed with nothing more than a fireworks smoke grenade and two cans of pepper spray.

After a lengthy standoff with police, DeClemente finally rammed his car into the concrete barrier between the road and the pedestrian walkway, but the low-speed crash yielded little more than a scuff on the wall. Two questions came to mind: Could DeClemente have possibly broken his way through? And what would have happened if he really did have a bomb?

Timothy Mays, a bridge designer who teaches civil engineering at The Citadel, says that while the steel-reinforced barriers are designed to take accidental collisions rather than head-on impacts, DeClemente could not realistically have gotten through.

"The worst-case scenario that you could get over the barrier would be if you rolled," Mays says. "So somebody that knows how to drive a vehicle way better than me could turn at a very sharp angle and cause it to roll, and then it could roll over the barrier if they wanted to do that." In September 2007, two men died when a tire blew out on their Ford Explorer as they were traveling east on the Don Holt Bridge between North Charleston and Daniel Island, causing the driver to lose control and flip the vehicle. The SUV flipped over a waist-high barrier and plummeted five stories into the marsh.

As for the suicide-bomber scenario, Mays says no single person with a carload of explosives could take down a modern bridge — it takes a trained team of demolition professionals setting off a series of strategically placed detonations to bring down a bridge intentionally. Capt. Stan Gragg says the Mt. Pleasant Police Department has a plan in place to deal with bomb threats on the Ravenel Bridge.

click to enlarge Coast Guard Operations Petty Officer Jason Miller says he has never seen someone survive the fall from the Ravenel Bridge. - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Coast Guard Operations Petty Officer Jason Miller says he has never seen someone survive the fall from the Ravenel Bridge.

Disaster struck in 1946 on the John P. Grace Memorial Bridge, the predecessor to the predecessor to the Ravenel. The drifting cargo ship Nicaraguan Victory plowed into the bridge, tearing away a 100-yard piece of the roadway and killing a family of five when their car plummeted through the gash. But modern bridges are not only much more crash-proof than they once were — Mays says he recently designed a bridge to withstand a train collision — they are also designed to prevent getting hit in the first place. During the construction of the Ravenel Bridge from 2001 to 2005, 21 shiploads of limestone were carried in from Newfoundland to build protective islands at the bases of the bridge supports, according to the S.C. Department of Transportation. Today, an incoming ship would run aground on the rocks before it could ever hit one of the supports.

What about natural disasters?

Mays says any bridge design is a compromise between economy and safety, but most are "way over-designed for what they'll probably ever see in their life" anyway. When it came to the design of the Ravenel Bridge, designers took into consideration two types of natural disasters: earthquakes and hurricanes.

To prepare for earthquakes, Mays says the Ravenel designers started from the ground up with "massive foundations." Almost every component of the bridge is larger, stronger, and more capable of absorbing energy than on other bridges, he says. During the construction, SCDOT engineers detonated explosives to conduct a $6.5 million test of the foundations' integrity. They passed.

When it came to hurricane safety, Mays says engineers conducted wind-tunnel tests on a scale model of the bridge, taking into account winds that could cause the bridge to vibrate at dangerous frequencies. According to the SCDOT, the bridge is designed to withstand wind speeds up to 193 mph.

Who's in charge here?

When an emergency happens on a bridge connecting two towns or cities, reporters always find themselves scrambling to figure out which police department will respond. Capt. Gragg, of the Mt. Pleasant Police Department, says jurisdiction lines depend on the bridge. In the case of the Ravenel, Charleston and Mt. Pleasant have a mutual aid agreement with concurrent jurisdiction. Officers from either town can lay down the law on the bridge, but Charleston police tend to cover the northbound lanes, while Mt. Pleasant police cover the southbound lanes.

On the Ben Sawyer Bridge, which connects Mt. Pleasant to Sullivan's Island, MPPD's jurisdiction stops halfway across the bridge. On the Isle of Palms Connector, Mt. Pleasant cops have another mutual aid agreement with the IOP police. And on the I-526 bridges connecting Mt. Pleasant to Daniel Island and North Charleston, the responsibility can fall on either Mt. Pleasant, North Charleston, Charleston, Berkeley County, or Charleston County police.

What possesses a person to go climbing on the Ravenel Bridge?

James Chad Tomberlin and Kahrall Arkeen Wright told police they had climbed over the aluminum safety fence on May 21 for kicks. According to the reporting officer, the two men "stated that they do things like this for fun and it was called parkour," a French athletic discipline based on creative maneuvering around obstacles. Two days after their arrest, Tomberlin and Wright issued an official apology through their lawyer "to those who were either stuck in traffic or inconvenienced." Reached by phone last week, Tomberlin had this to say about his actions:

"To be honest with you, we were just up there hanging out. We did free-running, so it was kind of not that big of a deal to us, but then when we got up there, it seemed to be a lot more about location and where we were than anything."

What charges can people get for bridge-related offenses?

Tomberlin and Wright climbed over the protective pedestrian fence on the Ravenel Bridge, and while Tomberlin made it back to the walkway on his own, Wright had to be lifted to safety in a harness from his perch on a support under the bridge. Once they were both safe, Tomberlin and Wright were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Police also charged Tomberlin with possession of drug paraphernalia after they found what appeared to be a marijuana pipe in his backpack. The two men were released from the Charleston County Detention Center after paying $262 apiece in bond. Their court date is set for June 11. Both men will be represented in court by attorney David Aylor, who Tomberlin says is taking their case pro bono.

DeClemente spent 30 days at MUSC's psychiatric unit after his SUV standoff on the Ravenel bridge, and Charleston police charged him with reckless driving. His attorney, Cameron Marshall, says DeClemente paid a fine of about $400 several weeks ago and is "back and doing much better."

Wyland received no additional charges after diving from the Westmoreland Bridge into the Ashley River. He still faces the grand larceny charge from Mt. Pleasant, though, and could face a prison sentence of up to five years if found guilty. His court date is set for Aug. 10.

Of course, there are collateral damages to take into consideration, too: In DeClemente's case, the Ravenel Bridge was jammed for three hours, and traffic ground to a halt as far away as North Charleston and West Ashley when rush-hour commuters took alternate routes. At the North Charleston Performing Arts Center that evening, three hours after DeClemente surrendered to police, a Jimmy Buffett concert got started 15 minutes behind schedule because many audience members were late arriving. And one Mt. Pleasant woman told the City Paper her cat died after getting held up in traffic en route to emergency veterinary care.

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