“I was just there hanging,” he told The Washington Post.
The truck didn’t fall off the bridge, but part of the trailer disintegrated, causing some of its cargo — more than 40,000 pounds of cardboard — to plummet dozens of feet onto another interstate highway below. The crash shut down both northbound lanes of an Interstate 79 overpass in South Strabane Township, Pa. Aside from Hobitakis having a few cuts and scrapes, no one was hurt — which he described as “a miracle.”
“I was literally saved,” said Hobitakis, 37.
Although Hobitakis said he was going the speed limit, Pennsylvania State Police cited him for speeding and driving outside his lane, according to a news release. The closest sign before the bridge sets a speed limit of 55 mph, and a yellow warning sign in front of the bridge advises drivers to go no more than 40 mph to safely make the turn.
Hobitakis, who lives in a suburb north of Chicago and started long-haul trucking 3½ years ago, was delivering some 20 tons of cardboard from Fairmont, W.Va., to Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., on the afternoon of April 12. An Orthodox Christian, he then planned to head home to celebrate Easter with family after several weeks on the road.
He was about 60 miles into the roughly 800-mile trip when he passed through South Strabane on Interstate 79. Around 3:45 p.m., he tried to slow his Volvo semi-truck to navigate the overpass, but the vehicle veered left. Although Hobitakis deployed the engine and pedal brakes, he said the truck didn’t slow down enough, and he struggled to turn as it drifted out of the right lane and into the left.
“I kind of got sucked in,” he said.
Hobitakis didn’t see the trailer roll onto its right side, but he said he felt the truck jerk back and to the right. Tethered to the trailer, the cab immediately followed, and the entire rig skidded hundreds of feet into the concrete wall separating the highway from what WPXI described as an approximately five-story drop to another interstate highway below.
As the truck slid, Hobitakis said he thought about the training videos he had watched that warned drivers that trailers that fall off cliffs or bridges can drag cabs with them. If that happened, Hobitakis felt certain the truck would explode into a fireball, incinerating him instantly.
But neither the trailer nor the cab went over the edge. After the truck stopped and Hobitakis figured he was safe from plummeting to his death, a new terror popped into his head. He feared sparks caused by the skid could ignite and explode one or both of the truck’s fuel tanks.
Panicked, he freed himself from his seat belt, tumbling to the passenger side of the cab, which had effectively become the floor. He couldn’t reach the skyward driver’s side door, and the one on the passenger side, if it could open, would do so into concrete. So he lowered his shoulder and rammed the windshield twice, cracking it the first time and crashing through it and out of the cab on the second. Aside from cuts and scrapes, which he compared to injuries a cyclist might get wiping out, he was not hurt.
Only when Hobitakis escaped could he step back and see how much of the trailer was hanging off the bridge.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my God!’” he recalled thinking. “It kind of didn’t look real. It looked like a movie.”
Hobitakis stayed at a hotel that night and collected his belongings from the truck the next day before renting a car and driving back home to Illinois.
The truck is insured by the company Hobitakis works for, though he thinks he’ll have to pay the policy’s $1,500 deductible. A week after the crash, he still has his job but is unsure whether he’ll keep driving trucks. He said he needs to reflect and reassess his priorities.
“I don’t know what’s next,” he added.
Hobitakis said he believes a higher power stopped the truck from tumbling off the overpass, saved his life and protected other drivers who might have otherwise been crushed by the load. While driving, he kept pictures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and St. Christopher taped to his dash. He also kept a necklace of his baptismal saint, St. Nicholas, near the truck’s USB port.
While surveying the wreckage, he found the necklace buried but undamaged in some rubble — between his truck and the edge of the bridge.