ALEXANDRIA, Va. – If you want to know how bad the drive over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge can be, consider this: In a contest to name the toughest commute, a guy who was driving when a pitchfork crashed through his windshield wasn't the winner.
Instead, the winner was Dan Ruefly, who for 28 years has left his Accokeek, Md., home at 5 a.m. to beat peak rush hour on the bridge that carries Interstate 95 traffic over the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia.
Ruefly had the misfortune of crashing full speed into a stopped tractor-trailer that couldn't pull over because the bridge had no shoulders, and the collision left him with a crushed hip that still pains him seven years later.
As winner of the contest, Ruefly gets to do what some Wilson Bridge commuters have probably dreamed of: helping detonate the span. Just before midnight Monday, he will push the plunger to destroy a half-mile section of steel girders on the Virginia side of the span.
Although the detonation requires a late-night commitment and will not even bring down any parts of the bridge over the water, hundreds of people submitted entries seeking to detonate part of the bridge.
Ruefly, for his part, said he considers his selection an honor but bears no personal animus against the bridge, which serves as a chief chokepoint on the I-95 corridor, the nation's busiest north-south highway.
"I'm probably more angry at the politicians who made it this way," he said.
For decades, politicians debated the bridge's replacement before finally embarking on a $2.4 billion project that will replace the old six-lane drawbridge with two new drawbridges. When finished in mid-2008, the bridges will be able to accommodate 12 lanes of traffic.
Earlier this year, crews finished work on the first of the two new bridges, and traffic is now routed onto the new span. Even though the new bridge has six lanes, traffic flow has improved because the new, higher bridge requires fewer drawspan openings and has safety shoulders to accommodate broken-down vehicles.
Nobody anticipated the volume of traffic the bridge — part of Washington's eight-lane Capital Beltway — would carry when it opened in December 1961.
Since its debut, the old bridge has carried more than 73 billion vehicles over the Potomac. Problems were frequent; in the late 1980s and early 1990s the drawspan frequently got stuck in the open position, causing massive traffic jams.
Then there was Stuart Roy's confrontation with a pitchfork in 2003. Roy was enjoying a Sunday afternoon drive when a landscaping truck traveling in the opposite direction hit one of the bridge's many rough patches. A pitchfork dislodged itself from the truck's roof and launched skyward.
"It just made this perfect arc, tines pointed right at me," said Roy, an Alexandria resident.
Roy slammed on the brakes. Then, he started picking grit and windshield glass from his hair and face. He looked up to see tines pointed at him — only a few inches from his face.
"I thought I had a good chance to win the contest," Roy said.
Perhaps nothing sticks in commuters' minds like November 1998, when an Alexandria man stood on the bridge for five hours as he contemplated whether to jump. Police closed the bridge, and eventually shot him off the bridge with a beanbag bullet. He fell 50 feet into the water and was picked up by a rescue boat with minor injuries. Traffic jams stretched across most of the beltway.
Ruefly, who was caught up in the mess, said he never considered moving.
"No, I grew up in Oxon Hill (near Accokeek)," he said. "My friends are here."