UPPER TOWNSHIP — Jeff Stuart was startled Tuesday by a crash outside his bayfront home in Strathmere.
“I heard a crunch — a muffled thud,” Stuart, 57, said.
He looked out the window of his home that overlooks Corsons Inlet and saw two heads bobbing in the water. Stuart ran to the bedroom and pulled two blankets from a bureau.
Michael and Nicole Crudele, twin siblings and seniors at Ocean City High School, survived a 30-foot plunge into Corsons Inlet from the bridge there after their sport utility vehicle hopped a curb, plowed through a light pole and smashed through a guardrail that had been scheduled to be replaced. Nicole Crudele was behind the wheel.
The truck somersaulted and landed upside down in Strathmere Bay. Witnesses said it sank quickly, trapping the 18-year-olds inside in the near-freezing water. Michael and Nicole, who were driving to their home in Sea Isle City, escaped through the truck’s broken windows and swam 15 feet to the surface. They paddled to shore, where they clambered onto the beach and collapsed, shivering, witnesses said.
Strathmere Fire Chief Bruce Riordan and his wife, Gwen, were sitting at their kitchen table when they heard an enormous splash behind their bayfront home. The fire chief glanced out the window and told his wife to call 911.
“I was so panicked I had to dial it twice,” she said.
He ran out to the short beach behind his house as the two teens clambered ashore. His wife brought additional blankets that she had grabbed from the living room.
Stuart said that when he got to the shoreline, he realized a truck had driven off the span. He tended to the two victims, both of whom were bleeding from cuts on their heads and were shaking violently in the cold, he said.
“They just kept saying, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe it.’” he said.
“It’s extremely scary,” Stuart said. “You can’t even imagine what it was like for those kids.”
The two were taken by ambulance to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, City Campus. Michael Crudele was treated for minor injuries and released Tuesday. His sister was admitted overnight but was expected to recover from her injuries as well, the family said.
Their mother, Maria, drove to the inlet as rescue crews were loading the two into the back of ambulances.
“I let them borrow the Ford Expedition today because of the ice,” she said.
Fire Company President Greg Bennett said rescue workers were afraid the victims’ core body temperatures had dropped to dangerous levels.
“The biggest threat was hypothermia. They were both upset and cold,” he said.
The teens are the niece and nephew of Sea Isle City Mayor and Cape May County Freeholder Leonard Desiderio. Desiderio said that after seeing the precipitous drop off the span, he could not believe they had survived.
“They are very fortunate, very lucky,” he said. “How they fell, they landed on the roof. I’m so thankful they’re OK.”
State Police in Woodbine are still investigating the cause of the accident, but officials at the scene speculated the truck’s tires skidded on the drawbridge’s steel deck as the teens traveled southbound past the tollbooth, which was unmanned for the winter. No charges had been filed Tuesday night.
The truck veered left and hopped a 10-inch curb, plowed into the mechanical box that operates the drawbridge safety gates and snapped a light pole, sending the traffic lights crashing to the pavement.
The truck destroyed several lengths of guardrail before plunging headlong off the northeast side of the bridge.
The green water was so deep where the truck came to rest that it was not visible from the top of the bridge.
“The current is going to rip us pretty hard,” State Police diver Sgt. Dean Rocap warned his colleague before they slipped into the water to retrieve the truck. Workers used heavy equipment and a hoist to drag the damaged truck onto the beach just yards from Corsons Inlet State Park.
Once the victims were tended to, attention turned to the damaged toll bridge, one of five owned by the Cape May County Bridge Commission. Engineer Dale Foster said the span linking Upper Township and Ocean City likely will remain closed for two days until the missing guardrails can be replaced.
Cape May County freeholders in November rejected bids to replace guardrails on both sides of the 1948 span after the lowest bid came in at $3.5 million – about $1.5 million more than the county’s estimate.
The Board of Freeholders planned to solicit new bids on the project this month after the engineer revised the project’s specifications, County Administrator Steve O’Connor said.
The Corsons Inlet Bridge is the fourth-busiest of the five spans. Foster said the county reinforced the bridge’s structural integrity and painted it in recent years.
Foster said the goal was to install new tubular rails like those on the Great Channel Bridge. But that would have required extensive concrete cuts in the thick curb to install the new posts.
Ocean City contractor Jeffrey Crowley, 52, watched divers work to attach hoists to the submerged truck. He said he drives the span twice each week. He said the guardrails, which are rusted so badly in places they are falling apart, were in obvious need of replacement.
“If your car had that much rust, it would fail the inspection,” he said.
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