(What happened on SB 99 after vehicles flooded onto it after it reopened Tuesday night)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
When the Seattle Police Department’s Traffic Collision Investigation Squad is called in to investigate a crash that has killed or critically injured someone, SPD closes the road, often for a block or so in each direction.
But when TCIS investigated the two-car Tuesday afternoon crash at East Marginal/Nevada (map) that left a man with life-threatening injuries, trapped in his car, cut out of it by firefighters, southbound Highway 99 was closed all the way north to the Battery Street Tunnel – four miles away – and it stayed that way until almost 7:30 pm, as chronicled here.
As discussed in the ensuing 115+ WSB comments, among other places, five-plus hours of gridlock followed. One comment we heard in person: “It was like Snowpocalypse without the snow.”
Many have asked: Why couldn’t traffic have been allowed on southbound 99 as far as the West Seattle Bridge/Harbor Island exits, still about half a mile short of the crash scene?
We started seeking the answer first thing this morning. We also talked to one elected official who says that, separate from the crash, the traffic snarl was “preventable.”
First, who made the call for the four-mile closure zone? Not SDOT, whose communications director Rick Sheridan responded:
Questions about the collision investigation and road closure decisions in support of it should be directed to the Seattle Police Department (SPD). SPD responds to all major collisions and manages those incidents.
Given the loss of that major southbound corridor, SDOT’s Traffic Management Center (TMC) provided maximum north/south green times for the signal system on adjacent routes, posted signal board messages alerting drivers to the closure and recommended alternate routes. We additionally used social media to share information with the public. Our TMC stayed open late to monitor the situation, make signal adjustments as needed and provide information.
So we went to SPD – whose spokesperson Officer Drew Fowler explained in a phone conversation, “It was done there because it was the easiest way to quickly shut down traffic on 99 – because there is always a huge time crunch in events like this, getting it shut down as quickly as possible is important to life safety for everybody involved in the collision – it was the quickest way that we could shut down traffic going past the collision at that time.”
As Tuesday afternoon went on, couldn’t there have been a re-evaluation to see if the closure zone could have been shortened, at least allowing people to be routed off 99 at the exit for the high and low West Seattle-bound bridges?
Officer Fowler: “Those are assessments that we could take a look at … if there are lessons to be learned we’ll hear those out, if there’s a better way to go on a scenario. It’s difficult at that moment when you have 10 million variables and limited resources, you just have to make an executive decision.” He said SPD would be “examining” what happened.
Any officer has the authority to close a road, Fowler added, but if it’s “going to be closed for a specific period of time, a lieutenant is notified of the closure.” And that, he said, is the level at which this plan was signed off. “TCI calls are difficult – the detectives are trying to conduct CSI-level invstigation in the middle of a roadway and the difficult thing about that is, once the roadway is open, any evidence that existed is gone.”
He said SPD is “very sorry for the inconvenience,” and also noted that the evening Mariners-Yankees game added to a “confluence of a lot of difficult circumstances that made it a bad traffic day.”
Among the thousands of people caught in the backups: West Seattle-residing City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, who doesn’t think it had to be as bad as it was, and vows to work to make sure there’s a plan for better coordination next time.
For starters, he said, he will ask Mayor Murray to direct his departments to come up with a plan for situations like this. “It doesn’t seem like SDOT, WSDOT, and SPD have plans to investigate incidents without causing gridlock. The city was affected from Queen Anne to Beacon Hill – why they (couldn’t) localize the investigation was really puzzling.”
Saying his trip back to West Seattle, after being at City Hall well past 6 pm, took almost an hour and a half – via Airport Way to Spokane Street – Rasmussen declared, “This can’t happen again.” (We’re expecting a copy of his message to the mayor later, and will add it to the story when we receive it.)
P.S. We don’t know the crash victims’ conditions, but we did get more information about the post-crash “heavy rescue” from SFD spokesperson Kyle Moore:
We received the 911 call at 1:44 p.m. When fire crews arrived at East Marginal Way South and South Nevada Street they had two patients already out of a vehicle and a male driver in his 30’s trapped inside the vehicle. The driver was wearing his seatbelt and the airbags did deploy in the car.
When ourt Technical Rescue Team arrived, they used spreaders to pop open the driver’s side doors. This allowed for better access to the patient. Then firefighters used high powered saws and cutter to cut off the roof and to cut the driver’s seat. This allowed firefighter to lower the patient and place him on a backboard before lifting him out of the car. We were able to extricate the patient at 1:59 p.m. Medics transported the male in his 30’s to Harborview Medical Center in critical condition.
The other two patients were males in their 60’s. Medics and Firefighters transported both men to HMC in serious but stable condition. They did not have any visible sign of injuries and were both wearing their seatbelts.
The most recent TCIS-investigated crash in the West Seattle area was the hit-run incident that left a bicyclist badly hurt last month on the east end of the low bridge. It was closed off for 4 1/2 hours following the crash. Traffic effects were far different, of course, because that was late night/early morning.