Segment of Old Woodrow Wilson Bridge Demolished in Virginia

A section of the old Woodrow Wilson Bridge was brought down early Tuesday, a planned demolition set in motion by a longtime commuter who won a contest for the honor.

A few minutes after midnight, Dan Ruefly pushed a ceremonial plunger to begin the countdown to destroy a half-mile section of the span that carries Interstate 95 traffic over the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia.

Then, engineers set off the explosive charges that collapsed a half-mile section of steel girders on the Virginia side of the 45-year-old bridge.

Hundreds of people submitted entries to the contest to find the person with the "toughest bridge commute."

For 28 years, Ruefly had left his Accokeek, Md., home at 5 a.m. to beat peak rush hour on the bridge. Seven years ago, he crashed into a stopped tractor-trailer that couldn't pull over because the bridge has no shoulders. He suffered a crushed hip that still pains him, and his daughter, Tiffanie, entered him in the contest.

The demolition was delayed a half-hour early Tuesday by safety concerns. At one point, the crowd started chanting, "Blow it up!"

Then, Ruefly and his daughter pushed the plunger.

"Make sure nothing's left," Ruefly's friend had told him.

Ruefly, for his part, said he was "probably more angry at the politicians who made it this way" than at the bridge, a chief chokepoint on the north-south I-95 corridor.

Nobody anticipated the volume of traffic the bridge would carry when it opened in December 1961. The old bridge carried more than 73 billion vehicles, but sometimes caused massive traffic jams when it stuck open. Many commuters also remember the time in 1998 when a man held up traffic for hours as he contemplated whether to jump off.

For decades, lawmakers debated the bridge's replacement before finally embarking on a $2.4 billion project to 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 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.