By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
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UPDATE: Traffic in the northbound lanes of Interstate 77 between Bluefield and Princeton is still being detoured this morning to U.S. Route 460 as Division of Highway crews determined what needs to be done to stabilize the rock slide that blocked both northbound lanes of traffic on the interstate Wednesday.
Northbound lanes of Interstate 77 were closed Wednesday evening as state crews worked to remove a major rock slide that blocked lanes and caused long delays that rippled onto nearby U.S. Route 460.
Northbound tractor-trailers, cars, motor homes and a submarine were stuck for several hours after the lanes were closed. Crews were able later to open one lane and allow stuck motorists to get past the rock slide, but administrators decided to close that section of the lanes – between the third and fourth mile markers – until they determined how to clean up the area safely.
District Manager Tom Camden said Wednesday evening that he could not estimate when the rock fall would be cleared away.
The West Virginia Department of Highways learned at approximately 10 a.m. Wednesday that pieces of a cliff were falling onto I-77 between the third and fourth mile markers, Camden said. Traffic was stopped as the problem became more serious.
“And about 1 o’clock, the bulk of it came down,” Camden said at the scene.
A jumble of boulders, some as big or bigger than refrigerators and cars, came down the embankment and blocked the right-hand lane. DOH personnel started putting up concrete barriers in hopes that traffic between Exit 1 and the rock fall could get past. The DOH set up a detour by letting traffic leave I-77 at Exit 1, proceed down John Nash Boulevard, then travel on U.S. Route 460 to Princeton. Motorists could then go north again on I-77.
Traffic was at a near standstill Wednesday evening on U.S. 460, eastbound from Crumpecker Hill to at least as far as the Ingleside Road exit, Daily Telegraph sports writer Tom Bone said while driving through the area.
The Virginia State Police issued a travel advisory warning people traveling north on I-77 in Bland County, Va. that there were significant delays through the area. The traffic was down to one lane in Bland County at that time.
“We would like to get traffic moving again on 77, but obviously we don’t want anyone to get hurt,” Camden said.
Workers had to wait while pieces of rock kept rolling down the hillside. The main concern was whether the large pile of boulders and the rock face were stable.
“You can walk on the other side of it and you can hear it crack,” Rob White, assistant maintenance engineer for the DOH, said about the huge pile of stone. “Pretty much as it stands, we’re waiting for it to be safe enough to where we can get underneath it and start cleaning up.”
By 5:15 p.m., Camden told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph that those lanes would remain closed Wednesday night.
“We did go up the mountain,” he said. “It appears that there’s quite a bit of unstable material still there. We’re looking at that now to see what we can do to move it before we can open the road. The ground above it has moved and we’re afraid it’s going to come down.”
Camden said the DOH regularly cleans up debris that falls from the surrounding mountains.
“This is obviously one of those things you can’t plan for,” he said of Wednesday’s large rock slide.
The cliff, made up largely of sandstone, shale and quartz, is constantly eroding. During this time of year, the weather delivers snow and rain along with freezing and thawing cycles that crack rock, Camden said.
Vehicles that could turn around were allowed to go back up to Exit 1 so they could leave the highway, but larger ones, such as tractor-trailers that couldn’t make the turn, had to wait. One craft that had to wait is more at home in water than on asphalt. It was a submarine.
A replica of the Confederate submarine CSS Hunley was being hauled to a festival in Putman County. The original submersible was the first craft of its type of sink a ship; unfortunately, the sub’s crew died in the attack. The full-size replica is a mobile exhibit.
“We’re going to Hurricane,” said the truck’s driver, Mark Clark of Summersville, S.C. “We’ll go up to Putnam County Parks and Recreation. We go to all different types of memorials, reenactments, things like that. It would help if we could get it there tonight. We have to get it set up for some kids in the morning.”
The replica’s builder, John Dangerfield of Charleston, S.C., said its side panels could be removed. Visitors then go aboard and discover that the cranks turning the propeller, the dive planes, the snorkel box and other parts actually work.
“They’ll get to turning the cranks and that propeller goes like crazy,” he remarked.
The detour would remain in effect until the lanes could be cleared safely, Camden said.