The truck driver from Michigan had never traveled across the deadly stretch of U.S. 33 in Pendleton County.
Anthony Jones lost control of his tractor-trailer, after barreling into a treacherous turn called “Horseshoe Curve.” The Kenworth truck swung across the highway, smashed through a guard rail and tumbled into a ravine. Jones, who sustained serious injuries, was flown by helicopter to a Morgantown hospital.
The Aug. 11 incident was the 21st tractor-trailer crash along a 4-mile stretch of U.S. 33 since 2009, according to a recent study by the West Virginia State Police. Four people have died in those wrecks.
“It’s probably the most dangerous little stretch of roadway in West Virginia,” said Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton.
Pendleton County commissioners and school board members, along with a host of state lawmakers who represent the area, are intensifying a decades-old push to reconfigure the dangerous stretch of U.S. 33 that plunges down the Allegheny Front between Harman and Seneca Rocks.
Just days after the Sunday Gazette-Mail emailed the Division of Highways with questions about the tractor-trailer accidents, DOH officials last week announced plans to spend $120,000 on flashing signs that will warn truck drivers about the roadway.
Sponaugle said the signs would help reduce tractor-trailer wrecks, but he and other elected officials want a permanent fix. They want the DOH to reconfigure the highway, or build escape ramps for runaway trucks.
“The DOH has a duty to protect the public when they know there are highways that are deadly,” Sponaugle said. “This needs attention immediately. It’s not something to put on the back burner.”
Warnings about U.S. 33 sounded decades ago
Perhaps no one has fought harder for safety upgrades along U.S. 33 than Rick Gillespie.
Gillespie, a former state trooper who now serves on the Pendleton County school board, first started raising awareness about the highway in 1982.
After responding to the scene of numerous accidents on the mountainous roadway, Gillespie started an investigation, finding that the U.S. 33 wrecks accounted for an extraordinary percentage of accidents and fatalities each year in Pendleton County.
Gillespie shared his study with the Division of Highways, asking for help to improve the road. He suggested three measures: a requirement that trucks stop at the top of Allegheny Mountain, at least two “sand traps” for runaway trucks and having the road resurfaced with skid-free pavement.
The DOH put up larger signs shortly thereafter but didn’t take any other significant steps to make the highway safer at the time.
Two years later, though, The Charleston Gazette reported on the mountain highway, and then-Gov. Jay Rockefeller immediately ordered a mandatory stopping place for trucks at the top of the mountain, along with additional warning signs.
That didn’t stop the tractor-trailer wrecks and fatalities, Gillespie said. He recalled the time when a runaway truck rounded “Dead Woman’s Curve” — a blind curve also along the 4-mile stretch of U.S. 33 — and bounded into oncoming traffic, sawing a tourist’s car in half and killing the driver instantly.
“Some of us have warned for years: Sooner or later, this will be a school bus, or one of the 200 tour buses that travel into Elkins each year, and we will witness multiple fatalities,” Gillespie said.
GPS directing more truck traffic to highway
Sponaugle believes GPS devices are steering more truckers to U.S. 33. It’s the shortest — but not the safest — route between Interstate 79 near Clarksburg and Interstate 81 near Harrisonburg, Virginia.
In most cases, it’s been long-distance truckers from outside the region who crashed their rigs after cresting Allegheny Mountain while heading east on U.S. 33.
“They just follow their GPS tracking system,” Sponaugle said. “They have no clue what they’re getting into coming off the mountain. There’s only one sign there before the big drop.”
Gillespie said some truckers ignore the mandatory stopping point at the top of the mountain. By that time, their tractor-trailer’s brakes are already overheated from the mountainous trip from Elkins.
After several steep grades down the Allegheny Front, there are two long straight-aways that fool truck drivers into thinking they’ve reached the bottom of the mountain.
Then they hit Dead Woman’s Curve.
“To the right is a several-hundred foot drop off the side of the mountain,” Gillespie said. “I have seen trucks plunge all the way down. They resemble an airplane crash.”
Next up is Horseshoe Curve, where runaway trucks sometimes skid into the westbound lane of U.S. 33.
“They wear out their brakes, and their brakes give out, and you’ve got a runaway truck,” Sponaugle said. “They jackknife into oncoming traffic.”
Proposed netting would catch tractor-trailers
Politicians have demanded that the Division of Highway do something about U.S. 33.
Sens. Greg Tucker, D-Summers, and Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, have spoken to Highways officials. Gillespie and Pendleton County commissioners have fired off letters to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox, and met with numerous DOH engineers.
Earlier this year, Sponaugle and Delegate Allen Evans, R-Grant, delivered a petition with more than 1,000 signatures, calling on the state to fix the highway.
About six years ago, the DOH planned to reconfigure the mountain highway descent but scrapped the project after construction companies submitted bids that exceeded available funds.
“We have never seen their plans,” Gillespie said.
DOH spokeswoman Carrie Bly said last week that, in addition to the $120,000 signage upgrade, the agency is conducting a “feasibility study” to address the runaway truck problem at Allegheny Mountain.
“There is a study underway, and the sign project is in the design phase,” Bly said in an email last week.
Gillespie has asked the Tomblin administration to direct the highway division to install a “CatchNet” system, which uses springs and other metal components that snag runaway tractor-trailers. They work like the nets on aircraft carriers that slow down fighter jets. Wyoming’s highways division has installed the special nets, which cost about $300,000 each, on several mountainous highways.
The metal nets can save trucks that weigh up to 90,000 pounds traveling at 90 miles per hour. The devices can be put back in service just hours after an accident.
Gillespie, who serves as chairman of the Pendleton 911 Advisory Board, also wants the DOH to build a concrete wall that would stop runaway trucks from vaulting over the mountainside at Dead Woman’s Curve.
“Enough studying,” Gillespie said. “The time for action is now.”
Reach Eric Eyre at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-4869 or follow @EricEyre on Twitter.