Bridge-tunnel incident raises safety awareness

Published 10:28 pm Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Timothy Morrison has had a few hair-raising and tense moments in his line of work.

But split-second thinking and aid from Morrison and others saved the life of an unresponsive man traveling in the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge Tunnel.

Morrison, who has been a Bridge-Tunnel Operations Program Manager with the Virginia Department of Transportation for about five years and has worked for the agency for nearly 25 years, responded to the Oct. 18 incident around 2:30 p.m. and found a single vehicle stopped in the northbound tunnel with a man who needed immediate medical assistance.

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“We responded (with) the tunnel responder down there,” Morrison said. “They were there within a minute, and quickly determined that it was a single-vehicle crash with an unconscious patient in the front seat.”

The tunnel responder and a Good Samaritan broke the window to the vehicle to open it, pulled the man out and found him without a pulse and was not breathing, Morrison said. The two began CPR until Morrison arrived, coming from the opposite direction to get there faster.

Morrison continued CPR and deployed an Automated External Defibrillator, or AED device, giving the man two shocks. The veteran VDOT employee kept up his efforts until Newport News Fire Department personnel took over and took the man to Riverside Regional Medical Center.

“For me, personally, it’s no other feeling like it to be able to help another human being,” Morrison said, “or to help anyone in need. In this case, I was doing exactly what I was trained to do, and I applied it directly to that scene. Afterwards, once the adrenaline stops, and you start to think about what you did, it’s a pretty awesome feeling.”

Morrison, of Poquoson, was speaking on the bridge-tunnel’s north island Wednesday about the incident as part of VDOT’s effort to highlight the importance of National Traffic Incident Response Awareness Week, which began Sunday and continues through Saturday.

“What we advise, in a two-fold situation with this, is obviously we need to be able to get there,” said Morrison, who is also a lieutenant with the Isle of Wight Volunteer Rescue Squad. “The tunnel is only 24 feet wide, so if you remain in your lane, our vehicles will not be able to respond. So we ask that you move to the far left and right to give us that center lane to be able to get our vehicles down there.”

Following efforts from Morrison, other VDOT employees, contract workers and local emergency response crews, Riverside Health System confirmed the person to be in good condition following the incident.

“It’s just something we don’t see every day, thankfully,” Morrison said. “But when it does happen, I’m grateful for the training that I do have, that it was provided to me both by VDOT and Isle of Wight Rescue to be able to respond in this capacity.”

Morrison, who became a registered emergency medical technician through his work in Isle of Wight, said if someone is at the scene of an incident, particularly in the tunnel, and that person has the skill-set to help, “we encourage that, because we need that assistance.”

At the time of the incident Morrison had been responding to, there was another incident within about 20 minutes involving a pregnant woman who was stuck in the traffic created by the first incident. Morrison said she taken by a crew from Suffolk Fire & Rescue to an area hospital.

“The importance of being able to get there, and being able to get there safely, is extremely vital to being able to provide assistance and care,” Morrison said, “and being able to clear the scene quickly.”

Morrison has had two other incidents in which he had to apply CPR, in one instance helping to prevent a suicide on the James River Bridge, and another when he was able to revive a heart attack victim in Kiln Creek in York County.

Phil Fonner, a VDOT Traffic Incident Management Coordinator from Churchland, has had numerous close calls, and either he or his vehicle has been hit on three different occasions in the last nine years. His responsibility as part of a two-man crew that covers about 10,000 miles of state-maintained road is to respond to major crashes in Hampton Roads.

He said too many drivers are in too much of a hurry, and asked for them to move over when they come upon an incident, and if they cannot, then to slow down.

“I’ve been hit twice, my vehicle a third time,” Fonner said, “so I really feel fortunate to be able to be here talking about traffic management. … It’s really, really important that our drivers out here understand that we’re out there to help. We want them to keep moving, to keep Virginia moving. That’s our goal.”

Fonner was in his vehicle when he was hit the first time in 2010 and suffered a broken neck — “I got some nice titanium hardware,” he says — from a hit-and-run in which the other driver was moving at more than 100 miles per hour.

The second time was a year later when he was assisting a nighttime incident at the High Rise bridge. He had set up cones and flares, saw cones getting hit and got clipped on his left side. That driver slowed down but then left the scene.

His third time was about a year and a half ago when he had to jump over a Jersey wall to avoid the vehicle, which ended up hitting his vehicle.

“I’m fortunate,” Fonner said. “Somebody’s watching over me.”

The worst part of it all for him — having to call his daughter. She figured after he retired from the Navy Regional Fire Department after 31 years, he would be safer.

Fonner said three people on his safety service patrols recently were hit within a 12-hour period, and four hit within 24 hours. He wants people to understand the move over, slow down law for drivers in Virginia. One of the toughest things for him on the job is seeing a co-worker hit.

“It’s a dangerous job that we do out here,” Fonner said.

Bridge-Tunnel staff and safety service patrollers respond to medical issues one to two times per week. Those can vary from minor issues to serious medical conditions. Fonner said the VDOT teams assess the incident to provide an avenue for first responders to get to the scene and then determine whether they need to divert traffic.

“People, after they’ve crashed or hit some of our responders,” Fonner said, “they’ll say, ‘I never even saw ‘em, never saw the lights.’ It’s dangerous out here, and we need the people to understand that we do have families, and we do want to go back home just like we came in earlier that day.”