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Crash, hazmat spill close I-95 south in Stafford County

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Crews work to clean up a hazmat spill on I-95. Photo by Mark Doyle / Stafford County Fire and Rescue Department



Photo by Dave Ellis

Mike Merrick’s trip from Washington to his home in Raleigh, N.C., normally takes about 3 hours, 45 minutes.

Not so on Friday, after a tractor–trailer crash and hazardous-materials spill on southbound Interstate 95 caused massive congestion on that highway and its main backup route, U.S. 1.

“We’ve spent three hours on the road already,” said Merrick, who stopped at a Valero gas station on U.S. 1 near the Stafford Airport interchange to fill up his pickup just after noon. “I thought D.C. traffic was bad.”

The accident happened a little after 5 a.m. when a tractor–trailer merging onto I–95 from U.S. 17 was rear-ended by another tractor–trailer driving south. No one was injured, and both trucks remained upright, according to Virginia State Police.

But the first truck—driven by Phillip C. Harris, 40, of Hopewell—was carrying barrels of a phosphoric acid, an organic, corrosive liquid most commonly used to give soft drinks a sharper flavor. Several barrels fell off and landed in the right lane of the highway, causing the hazmat situation.

“Basically, once the leak started, we shut down the roadway since we didn’t know what the leak was,” said Mark Doyle, assistant chief for Stafford Fire & Rescue.

The driver of the second tractor–trailer, James E. Harris Jr., 35, of Chester, was charged with following too closely, according to the Virginia State Police. The drivers are not related.

Hazmat teams from Fredericksburg and Northern Virginia were called in to secure the leak and clean the area. Though southbound lanes opened up around 11 a.m., the domino effect left the interstate and feeder roads tied up for hours.

At one point, backups Friday stretched 10 miles.

Southbound traffic was rerouted from I–95 onto U.S. 17 and then onto U.S. 1. Vehicles could get back on I–95 at the nearest exit, 130 at State Route 3 in Fredericksburg, according to alerts from the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Timing at some traffic lights was adjusted because of the high volume along the detour, and additional officers were stationed at key intersections to help travelers move along.

The Fredericksburg rest area and welcome center just north of Exit 130 were closed temporarily when the trucks involved in the crash were moved there.

Sherry Price was trying to get from Garrisonville Road in North Stafford to her home in Fredericksburg off State Route 3. On Friday, it took her three hours to cover half that distance—and the half tank of gas she’d started with was nearly gone.

She pulled into a packed gas station on U.S. 1—which was just as congested as I–95—to refill her tank.

“Everyone’s been real cool about it,” she said, “but man!”

School buses were caught in the delays, too. The last Stafford County bus to reach its destination arrived at Rocky Run Elementary School at 10:30 a.m.—an hour and a half after the school day starts, said spokeswoman Valerie Cottongim. It had to pick up children from the eastern side of the county and cross the I–95 corridor to reach the school, off U.S. 17.

“There was no getting there,” she said, noting that traffic remained at a standstill on U.S. 1 around 12:30 p.m. “It just wasn’t possible.”

Students practicing for drivers education classes were also pulled off the roads Friday morning so that they wouldn’t be caught in the mess.

Paul Korotash and Jenn Andrus, who are from Toronto, said they left D.C. around 11 a.m. on Friday, only to get caught for several hours in the backup. On their way down to Blowing Rock, N.C., for a vacation, the couple was matter-of-fact about the delay.

Glancing at the stalled traffic on U.S. 1, Korotash shrugged his shoulders and grinned.

“What’re you gonna do?” he said.

Staff writer Edie Gross contributed to this report.

Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975