For years, it was a weekly event: A big box truck or bus would crash into one of the bridges along the road winding beside the Charles River. Tow trucks often were on call to free vehicles wedged between roadway and bridge.
So massive rubber signs were installed at overpass level to brush against the top of oversized vehicles, warning drivers of a low bridge ahead. And just in case drivers didn’t feel the impact, cowbells were added to sound the alarm.
But over the years, some signs faded, got lost, or became tangled on the stanchions that support them, according to the former state administrator who put them there.
On Saturday night, a bus ferrying high school students from Philadelphia who had just toured Harvard University slammed into the Western Avenue bridge over Soldiers Field Road — a spot once slated to get one of the rubber warning signs but never did.
“What just occurred this weekend was something I lived in fear of for six-plus years,” said Bill Geary, who from 1983 to 1989 served as commissioner of the former Metropolitan District Commission, the agency that used to be responsible for maintaining Soldiers Field Road. The approach “was kind of primitive, but it worked. It reduced these episodes dramatically.”
Saturday’s crash injured more than 30 people, four seriously. A 17-year-old remained in critical condition Monday, according to State Police.
No charges had been filed or citations issued Monday against the driver of the bus, Samuel J. Jackson, as State Police continued their investigation. They are scrutinizing witness statements and physical evidence, examining the bus driver’s route just before the crash as well as posted road signs along the route and preliminary results of a collision reconstruction. Final results could take two to six weeks.
A drive along Storrow Drive and Soldiers Field Road Monday found “caution” placards affixed to bridges. Warning signs at entrance ramps alerted drivers that there was “danger” ahead because of “low clearance.” There were pictures of trucks bearing the international symbol that translates into “not allowed.”
But only some of the bridges had the low-hanging “cars only” signs that an oversized truck or bus would bump against.
Geary said the overpass-level danger signs were designed to mimic the chains that sometimes hang from railway tunnel entrances to deter train hopping. If drivers missed warnings getting on to the roadway, they would see signs posted at the exact level of the bridge while driving. If not, they would feel the impact with the rubber sign ON THE TOP OF THEIR VEHICLE IN TIME TO STOP BEFORE going under the overpass.
And if that didn’t work, the clanging cowbells were meant to draw drivers’ attention to the danger just ahead, Geary said.
“The whole thing was to alert the driver,” he said.
By the early 1990s the cowbells were gone, but the signs stayed, said SJ Port, spokeswoman for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which maintains the roadway where the crash occurred. On a windy day, the cowbells clanged away and neighbors couldn’t tell if there was an accident or just a lot of wind, Port said. “So we dropped the cowbells and went for rubber only,” she said. “They give you a slap on the forehead of the car.”
There are no rubber-encased warning signs approaching the Western Avenue bridge, though it is marked with a yellow, rectangular placard that reads: “Clearance 10ft 0in.” Signs warn off buses and trucks at the nearby entrance to Soldiers Field Road.
The Department of Conservation and Recreation relies on other agencies to track crashes into bridges along Storrow Drive and Soldiers Field Road, both designed to be sightseeing roads, not major thoroughfares. The roads were widened in the 1950s to accommodate an emerging suburban car culture but haven’t been widened since, Port said. Most crashes are the result of unfamiliar drivers behind the wheel of a truck — someone driving a moving truck, for example, or someone new to the area, she said.
“We’ve had a number of buses go down, and they feel those slaps and stop and call the State Police and have to be backed out,” Port said. “This is the only bus crash in recent memory that involves a certified . . . bus driver.”
That bus belonged to Calvary Coach. Raymond Talmadge, who owns Calvary, said this was the first time in his Philadelphia company’s 25-year history that it has been involved in such an accident. His two-bus company carries people to destinations outside of Pennsylvania, and therefore is not subject to state oversight, according to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.
The company is, however, subject to federal oversight. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s online database, an unidentified Calvary driver was written up for “unsafe driving.” According to the October 2011 report, the driver was cited for failure to obey a traffic control device.
The company had not been involved in a crash during the two years before Saturday’s accident, according to the federal oversight agency.
The wreck happened about 7:30 p.m. as the high school students headed home from a daylong visit to Harvard. The students, part of a Philadelphia area youth empowerment nonprofit called the Destined for a Dream Foundation, spent much of the day touring the campus and Cambridge.
From inside the mangled charter bus, 17-year-old Alana Merrigan’s medical training kicked in as she surveyed the chaos and began caring for peers, her mother said.
Alana, who studies nursing at Bucks County Technical High School, called her mother and said she was in “stable” condition, but people around her were bleeding. Then, her daughter began to help others, despite suffering a concussion and ankle injury. “During the accident she fell back to what she was learning, trying to help people get off the bus before she got off,” her mother said.