Traffic

I-95's coffin corridor

On July 21, 2014, this minivan was driven off Interstate 95 North near the 61 mile marker and entered the media, striking trees. The van caught on fire and a rear-seat passenger was killed.
On July 21, 2014, this minivan was driven off Interstate 95 North near the 61 mile marker and entered the media, striking trees. The van caught on fire and a rear-seat passenger was killed. Colleton County Fire and Rescue

It's not something local politicians are talking about. It's not something that area residents or the more than two million tourists who flock to Hilton Head Island each year even know about. And it's not something on anyone's radar to fix.

But the section of Interstate 95 that passes through Jasper County is particularly deadly -- and statistics show the trees that line its sides and medians are likely to blame.

More people have died in tree-related wrecks during the past five years along Jasper County's 35 miles of the interstate than in any other county that touches I-95, an investigation by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette has found.

Consider what has happened in the past five years:

• Twenty-two people have died on Jasper County's portion of I-95. That's more than any other S.C. county and nearly 32 percent of all I-95 deaths in the state during that period. This despite Jasper being only the fifth most likely county to have a crash, according to the newspapers' analysis of data used in the Federal Highway Administration's crash rate formula.



• Approximately 75 percent of the fatalities along the Jasper County stretch involved vehicles hitting trees.



• The percentage of tree-related fatalities in Jasper County far outweighs its size. Roughly 36 percent of all tree-related fatalities in the state happened in Jasper County, even though the county's 35-mile stretch of I-95 makes up less than 18 percent of the interstate's footprint in South Carolina.



Data indicates the death rate shows no sign of slowing down.

And nothing is being done right now to change it. Not by the state Department of Transportation, which began examining the dangers of trees little more than five years ago and doesn't even track the distance of trees from highways. Not by the state's legislature, which still hasn't devoted much funding for such projects. Not by the majority of the highway's travelers, who are oblivious to the dangers they face every time they merge onto I-95.

"No one wants anyone to get hurt, no one wants to walk up and see anyone mangled in a wreck with a tree, but we do, and far too often," said Hardeeville Police Chief Sam Woodward. "I ride up and down the interstate and look at the crosses all along the interstate and can just see that someone died here and here and here."

"Had that tree not been there, I wonder would those lives have been saved," he added. "And I think I know the answer."

'DOESN'T GET MORE OFFICIAL'

For those who have lost loved ones along Jasper County's I-95, it's not about statistics.

It's about loss.

For nearly four hours on July 6, 2012, Doug Hopson of Greenville did not know if the woman he loved was alive.

Marian Russell Hopson, his girlfriend at the time, was scheduled to return that afternoon from a week-long July 4 girls' trip to Hilton Head Island. Little did he know that Russell Hopson had plans to cook up a fancy seafood dinner of shrimp and grits for him that night, bringing a little bit of the Lowcountry back to the Upstate with her.

But she never made it.

Around 9:30 a.m., Hopson's phone rang with news of her death. The car carrying his girlfriend, her best friend, Mary Ann Collins, and Collins' stepmother, Frances Brown Dounian, had inexplicably careened off the highway, striking a tree in the median.

No one had survived.

"I was talking to the coroner asking if we would receive any official notification," Hopson said. "And I remember he said to me, these exact words, 'Son, I'm the coroner, it doesn't get any more official than this.'"

Coroners in the 10 counties along the interstate have been kept far too busy from wrecks with the tall pines that line the road.

Whether because of human error or something out of their control, people are leaving the road and running into trees.

While both state and federal guidelines suggest that trees close to interstates be cut down, it hasn't been done in Jasper County or other areas along I-95. A lack of political will and funding -- as well as no true measure of compliance with those guidelines -- are behind the inaction.

Too many family members receive the same phone call Hopson did. Too many lives are being lost where trees line the roads instead of safety cables.

But before Hopson could even begin to believe that Russell Hopson was gone, he was given some hope. Highway Patrol told him that one of the women in the car had actually survived. But no one would tell him who.

So Hopson jumped into a car and made the four-hour drive to Savannah -- driving the same stretch of road that had just claimed two women's lives -- to find out who had survived.

When he arrived, Russell Hopson was lying in a hospital bed, barely recognizable, not awake and severely injured. But alive.

The car she was in had swerved off the road, run into the median and plowed into a tree, killing her two friends in the front seats.

The treacherous section of road that is still claiming lives. Just last year, in the roughly 15-mile stretch of the interstate that runs both north and south of the Hilton Head Island exit, six people died in as many months from wrecks with trees -- one in June, one in August, three in September and one in November, according to Hardeeville Police Chief Sam Woodward.

And still the trees remain.

Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton and chairman of the Jasper County Legislative Delegation, said last year's deaths show something needs to be done.

"We have got to fix that coffin corridor right there," he said. "That's one of the worst things we have going for us."

HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF

A Hardeeville police officer, Cpl. Mark Jones, lost his life 10 years ago when his car ran off the same stretch of road and into the tree-filled median.

Then Hardeeville Police Chief Jimmy Hubbard remembers when he got a phone call around 4:30 a.m. that Jones had been in a collision.

Hubbard doesn't really recall the drive from his home to the wreck site, only that he silently prayed the entire way that Jones was unharmed. But Hubbard had been in his job for too long -- he knew Jones was probably dead.

The chief knew first-hand how dangerous the trees were along that stretch of road. In 2010, he was driving it on his way home from Charleston.

It had been raining on and off that day. He was only a couple miles from his exit when the back of the flat-bed truck in front of him fell open, pouring out all the water it had collected along the drive. Hubbard's car hydroplaned, sending him off the road and into the trees in the median.

He injured his head and his shoulders. It still aches when he puts on his jacket. But he was able to walk out of the hospital. That is more than most people in these wrecks can do, he says.

"There is a stretch in between Ridgeland and Hardeeville, for one period of time, and probably still is, that there was steadily always an accident and a fatality with the trees," Hubbard said. "It was like the Bermuda Triangle, if you went through there something was going to happen. It wasn't a matter of if but when."

'NOT A SKINNY PINE TREE ANYMORE'

Trees along I-95 aren't just a problem in Jasper County.

They line much of the interstate from the first mile marker on the Georgia border to the last before heading into North Carolina. All but two of the counties along the interstate -- Hampton and Darlington -- have had at least one fatal wreck with a tree in the last five years. Those two counties likely have escaped without one since only about five miles of the highway run within the border of each.

In many areas, the trees are within 15 or 20 feet from the road, some places even less. That does not meet the state's highway safety guidelines, which recommends a clear zone of at least 30 feet between the road's edge and the nearest "roadside" hazard.

Traffic engineers generally accept that 30 feet gives about 80 percent of drivers who leave the road adequate space to recover and regain control of their cars.

But how many roadways comply with that guideline? The state's Department of Transportation doesn't know, said traffic safety engineer Brett Harrelson. The agency doesn't keep track.

A Clemson study, however, offers a rough idea. It found only 12 of 147 randomly selected areas around the state actually met the recommended 30-foot zone.

"Trees have their place, but not on the side of the road," said Wayne Sarasua, one of the lead researchers on the 2009 study. "The bottom line is: Trees kill. They really do. If you eliminate the trees, you'll eliminate tree crashes."

And if the tree crashes are eliminated, he said, lives are saved.

Woodward said he sees the problem just as clearly.

"Up and down the interstate as a whole, we have to do something," he said. "Between me going back and forth to Columbia for different things, I see those crosses all along the road too often and too close together, and I just ask myself 'Why? Could that have been avoided if those trees weren't there?'"

"I think the answer is yes," he added. "I think it's a pretty well open and shut answer: There's your problem so let's figure out a solution."

Clarendon Fire Department Chief Frances Richbourg said she feels the same way.

"It's kinda hard to describe what you see as a car after some of these wrecks because they are so mangled and you see a lot of debris and things of that nature scattered around," Richbourg said. "People see them as tall, skinny pine trees. But when you hit those trees going at 70 mph it's not a skinny pine tree anymore."

'CAN'T HIT WHAT'S NOT THERE'

Emergency responders and law enforcement officials acknowledge that many times drivers leave the road because of human error -- whether it be speeding, falling asleep or getting distracted. Other times, however, something out of drivers' control, such as a medical emergency, a blown tire or a pothole, sends cars into the trees.

Regardless of the reason, Jared Fralix, an engineer for Colleton County, said lives could be saved if the trees were cut down.

"It's a well-known fact in this business that you can't hit something that isn't there," he said.

DOT didn't start looking into the dangers of the unforgiving and unassuming roadside trees until just more than five years ago. When they finally did, they said they were surprised by what they found, according to Harrelson.

But little has been done to address the problem and officials' concerns. The few attempts have been met with a lack of state funding and opposition by environmental groups.

"Who's son, mother, daughter or father is it going to take dying in a collision with a tree before people finally say, 'This needs to get done and why didn't we do something earlier?'" Woodward said.

'WHAT'S IT GOING TO TAKE?'

Marian Russell Hopson, the lone survivor of the 2012 wreck, said she has already lost enough to know something needs to change.

She has lost two friends. She has lost her ability to continue to work as a teacher and inspire young minds, her true passion. She has even lost much of her short-term memory.

She doesn't remember any of the wreck that killed her two girlfriends -- Collins, a fellow science teacher at J.L. Mann High School, and Dounian, an insurance industry retiree.

She doesn't remember Dounian swerving to avoid something in the road, losing control and running off into the median. She doesn't remember that a nurse who was driving by stopped to help until paramedics arrived, probably saving her life. She doesn't remember being airlifted to Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah.

The last thing she remembers is walking through the Bluffton Piggly Wiggly with Collins about an hour before the wreck, shrimp in her cart and trying to decide what spices to buy.

And the first thing she remembers post-wreck is waking up at a Greenville hospital several days after the crash in extreme pain.

She had severe brain trauma, crushed her right eye socket, shattered her right arm and destroyed her right knee cap. She was in the hospital for six months recovering from her injuries.

While her body had never felt worse, the rest of her felt nothing. The aftermath of the wreck left her numb and empty -- though she slowly is rebuilding her life.

"I just try not to think too much back on being in the classroom and Mary Ann being next to me. ," Russell Hopson said. "I just think that it's so awful that there have to be car accidents and such loss to get the attention of the powers-that-be; what is it going to take?"

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