Blurs of cars race by as a swirling wind whips toward patches of grass and a surrounding stronghold of trees. A zipping buzz of humming engines breaks the silence of the cracked-asphalt setting.
Car by car, the world moves on in an instant. And in a fleeting moment, life can be taken away.
For Susan Davis, the reminder is one of heartbreak.
To others, it's an area to beware.
Interstate 20 just beyond the Appling-Harlem Road exit was where Davis lost her 19-year-old son, Craig Davis, on August 31. Police say his car veered off the road and into a pine tree that morning. Officials say fatigue might have been the cause.
"I haven't ever been there," Craig's mother said of the accident site. "I don't even know where it is. I just couldn't go."
For the Davises, they now have only the memories of the boy they raised into a "wonderful kid," who "just loved people and had the best outlook on life," his mother said.
"He never, ever, ever drove I-20, never," his mother said, adding that he happened to be dropping off someone that required him to drive I-20 the morning of the accident. "It was just one of those things."
Craig's death came unexpectedly, but it wasn't unusual for the area. Since 1997, 11 of the county's 42 fatal accidents - more than a quarter - have occurred on the county's 17-mile stretch of I-20.
"There's no other roads in the county that have a higher total," sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris said.
And among the 11 deaths on the interstate since 1997, eight have occurred on the western portion of the county, near the Appling-Harlem exit.
Jim Fincher with the Georgia Department of Transportation said that between 1997 and 1999 - the most recently accumulated statewide statistics - the fatality rate on the interstate in Columbia County only was above the state average during 1998. But in the past two years, he said, the numbers seem to be climbing back above the average.
"It looks like the fatal accidents have been kind of steady out there," he said. "But it's jumped from (an average of) 3 to 4.5 fatalities for the last two years. I certainly hope they go back down in 2002."
The fatality rate is based on the number of fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. The rate in Columbia County on I-20 was at 0.42 in 1997, 2.54 in 1998 and 0.85 in 1999 compared to the state average of 0.93, 0.91 and 1.03 respectively. The number of fatal accidents in 2000 and 2001 so far are equal to those in 1998.
As Columbia County's deputy coroner, Tommy King Jr. has seen his share of tragedy on the interstate, mostly near the Appling-Harlem Road exit. But it was Craig's case - I-20's most recent fatality - that particularly hit home. In the weeks before the accident, King Jr. had hired Craig to come to work for his family as a funeral home apprentice. On the day of Craig's wreck, it was King's Jr.'s job to pronounce the 19-year-old dead.
A memorial marker on the side of I-20 marks the place where Rev. Virgil Condit and his wife Barbara were killed when their car was hit while parked on the shoulder of the highway in June, 2000.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
"I knew that family, not just him," King Jr. said.
Today, King Jr. and many others see the area where Craig died as a danger zone.
"It's like the Bermuda Triangle on the highway," he said. "Most of the time when a wreck happens on that stretch through there, it's a fatality."
King Jr. remembers other cases to back up his claim.
"I had a man that got killed there last year, an elderly man in a Volvo station wagon," he said. "Witnesses behind him said he just ran off the road. Come to find out, he had a heart attack."
The man was Robert Collins, 72, of Thomson. On July 19, 2000, his name joined a list that includes: Tammy Jane Muennink, 38, and her husband, James Michael Muennink, 37, of Hondo, Texas; Ernestine B. Smith, 49, of Thomson; David Overton, 58, of Martinez; Barbara Conditt, 51, and her husband, the Rev. Virgil Conditt, 52; and many more.
In the case of the Meunninks, police say fatigue was the cause. Their tractor-trailer swerved off the road August 15, hitting an embankment and crashing into a group of pines near mile marker 179.
For the Conditts, death came while they were parked on the interstate's emergency lane near the Appling-Harlem Road exit. On June 22, 2000, police say Michael Jones, 40, shot himself while traveling eastbound on the interstate near the Appling-Harlem Road exit. Jones' car swerved off the roadway and into the emergency lane, striking the Conditts' two cars. All three died in the collision.
The Conditts were parked there because of car trouble and were awaiting a tow truck. Today, wreaths remain at the site as a reminder.
The main reminder officials have for those driving on the county's interstate is to stay awake.
"I would say the majority of wrecks there would be where somebody fell asleep," said Tommy King Sr., the county's coroner. "That's it. It's just unnecessary, a preventable type thing."
According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 100,000 crashes are reported each year involving drowsiness or fatigue. The administration also estimates that there are 1,500 road fatalities annually involving fatigue.
King Sr. said that in many of the cases where someone fell asleep and their car hit a tree on I-20, the motorist had been traveling for a while and was headed east from Atlanta toward Augusta.
Of the county's 11 fatal wrecks on I-20 since '97, eight occurred in the eastbound lane.
Lately, King Sr. said he's seen more fatal wrecks in the area.
"I've noticed it increase in the last several years there," he said.
Fincher said the increase could be because of a higher number of travelers using interstates.
"Travel is going up," he said. "It went up on the state's interstates four percent from 1999 to 2000."
King Jr. said most cases on the western portion of I-20 are usually unexplainable, but in some cases it could be the presence of a truck weighing station slowing down traffic near Appling- Harlem Road.
"The trucks, most of the time they run pretty good," he said. "And then when the weigh station is in operation, they're coming up to it and they start slowing down and changing lanes."
Slow moving traffic on other parts of the interstate has also proved deadly. Ernestine B. Smith, a 49-year-old mother, was killed in a crash just beyond the Columbia-McDuffie county line when a Ford Expedition slammed into her slower-moving Chrysler. Less than a month before in January 1999, two people also were killed and 10 others were sent to area hospitals after a wreck just inside McDuffie County. Authorities said the wreck was caused by slow moving traffic in Columbia County.
Until recently, the western stretch carried a 70 mph speed limit - 5 mph higher than the portion of the interstate on the county's eastern side.
So far, Rusty Merritt of the Georgia Department of Transportation said there have been no traffic studies conducted in the area. But the department is currently implementing a safety project there, cutting the tree line along the interstate 50 feet away from travel.
"A lot of times there were places where people would accidentally leave the road and would hit a tree before they could recover," he said.
The tree clearing is being done in conjunction with a two-year road repair project in the area. The state has lowered the speed limit on that stretch from 70 to 60 mph while the work is under way.
Priscilla Bence, a coordinator for the Safe Communities Coalition of Augusta, said she's happy to see the work being conducted.
"The tree clearing will definitely be helpful," she said. "There has been an increase in the last two years in people crossing center lines, which tells us there is an increase in the fatigue problem."
Once the construction on the road is completed, the speed limit will go back to 70. Bence said she wishes the higher limit wouldn't return.
"We know that speed is directly related to a lowering of fatalities," she said. "So, if it would just stay at 60, because Appling and Harlem with all of the construction of new housing out there, to me that would be logical."
Still, Fincher said the interstate remains the safest passage for travel in the state.
"In any county, if you generally take the interstate fatality rates, they're going to be lower than other kinds of roads," he said, adding that country roads are more dangerous due to hills and curves. "Even though (fatal wrecks) might seem to be going up there, it still is the best facility that we have in Georgia."
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.