NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– A “long metal object” fell from the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge Wednesday and landed on a driver’s windshield, leaving behind an approximately 4-inch shattered impression directly in line with the steering wheel.
The driver called it her “Final Destination” moment.
“I liked to have died today!” Paula Lee warned members of the popular Facebook group, Leland NC Traffic Reports. “If it would have come through I would be dead!!”
The moment happened right as Lee traveled under the gated structure on the eastern bank of the Cape Fear River coming from Brunswick County, she told Port City Daily. It was the most terrifying thing that’s ever happened to her on the road, she said.
While traveling in the right-hand lane, the sun reflected on a falling object that “appeared to be part of the structure,” which caught her attention. “So I looked up and it was a fluke that as I got to the bridge that object met me. I literally saw it coming from the top of the bridge,” she said.
Unsure of how large the object was, since it happened so quickly, Lee said it reminded her of a spear — perhaps not quite as long.
Lee said she was grateful she saw it fall, as she may have swerved if she hadn’t.
“I saw it hit and it bounced off. Didn’t see where it went,” she said. Lee guessed it may have gone over the side of the bridge because drivers in the left-hand lane seemed unfazed. “Thank goodness my window was thick enough it didn’t come through,” she said.
The damage is covered under her insurance after she pays to meet her $100 deductible. North Carolina Department of Transportation representatives informed her she can file a tort claim for potential reimbursement; Lee said she already has the paperwork printed out to file the claim.
Three additional commenters under Lee’s post shared experiences of debris falling from the bridge. Catherine Bright encountered a flying bolt in December 2020 that cracked the windshield of the car she was driving, just as she was exiting on the eastern bank of the river. A dashcam screenshot shows the bolt midair.
“My husband didn’t believe me until he saw the dash cam footage,” Bright told Port City Daily.
Seeing Lee’s post brought back a memory for Kelly Judd, who remembers falling debris hitting his vehicle about six years ago. It was during maintenance when the bridge would close at night and open in the morning, Judd said.
Traveling into Wilmington, Judd was traveling highway speed when he saw something drop from the girders above. The object looked like a tool, he said, maybe a socket or large wrench. It hit the top of his truck and left a deep dent. “I never reported because how could I prove it?” he said.
NCDOT says bridge safe for travel
Lee submitted a report to NCDOT, which owns and maintains the 52-year-old bridge. NCDOT crews inspected the structure immediately after and determined the bridge was safe for drivers, according to department spokesperson Lauren Haviland.
Bridge experts did locate a piece of round stock steel — not a bridge component — in the same area as Lee’s report. “We cannot speculate where the steel came from, we just know that it is not part of the bridge,” Haviland wrote in an email Thursday.
The bridge is regularly maintained and was last inspected in May (aside from the inspection Wednesday, prompted by the fallen object report). The department has not received any similar reports before, according to Haviland.
“The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge remains safe for drivers,” Haviland wrote.
Every 15 years, the bridge undergoes an extensive rehabilitation project. The last project wrapped in 2019 and cost $15 million. The aging bridge costs NCDOT about $550,000 to maintain annually.
Though department officials have identified a need to eventually replace the bridge, there is no plan to do so, given funding constraints.
Send tips and comments to Johanna F. Still at firstname.lastname@example.org