‘Worst road’ almost claims another

A tricky turn on Route 729 almost claimed another life last week.

Just after 8 p.m. last Tuesday (Jan. 24), 16-year-old Rappahannock County High School student Trey Swindler apparently over-corrected after running two tires off the side of the blacktop during a notoriously dangerous turn on the two-lane road, and hit an embankment head on. Castleton and Amissville Volunteer Fire and Rescue companies reached the scene by 8:30 p.m.

Rescuers told Swindler’s father (who allowed the newspaper to identify his son) that the young man’s seatbelt saved his life. He sustained two broken ribs, a bruised lung, fractured orbital lobe, severe concussion and bleeding on the frontal lobe of the brain, according to his father. He has been home with his family all week, and due to the severe concussion, the young Swindler was prescribed “cognitive rest”: no reading, no school work and minimal television.

Rappahannock County Sheriff Connie Smith, who drives this stretch of Richmond Road to and from work every day, says she has responded to eight fatalities on Route 729 since she started as an EMT with the Amissville squad in the 1980s; four of those fatalities occurred within the same “dip” were Trey Swindler lost control. Smith refers to that location as “the red barn,” because the multi-part turn twists past a red barn on Bill Fannon’s farm.

“Rt. 729 is the most dangerous road in Rappahannock,” Smith said. “It’s by far the worst road for fatalities, and a big part of that is because of that turn at the red barn where Mary Beth [Williams] died. As you pop over that hill you have to immediately dip down and to the left and then turn back right at the bridge – and if you miss the road even a little bit and end up in that ditch line, you’re done.”

Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff lives on Richmond Road, and said he recently witnessed a bad accident involving another minor just outside his house; he said Trey’s accident was enough to get him going.

“It is a dangerous road, with an incredibly dangerous turn right in the middle of it where several people have died,” Goff said, noting that he is working with a special prosecutor in Page County to file a Freedom of Information Act request to retrieve VDOT engineering plans for the construction of that turn at the red barn, and will request a Virginia State Police accident summary covering the last 20 years.

“If you have that many serious accidents in the same place, there has to be something wrong with the engineering. I blame the road. And I’m not an engineer, but I’d like to find an engineer that can explain to me why this road hasn’t been fixed properly.”

Goff and Smith agree that speed is often an issue on Route 729 – a winding secondary paved road with no lines, and which roughly follows what was, hundreds of years ago, a trail used by Native Americans. Smith said that her deputies on road patrol write speeding tickets for speeds of over 70 mph on the road on a daily basis. (The speed limit is 45 mph.)

“The solution is to drive more carefully,” said Trey Swindler’s father, RCHS athletic director Jimmy Swindler. “In Trey’s case, it was more inexperience; he went off the road a little bit and over-corrected. He’d only been driving by himself for a month but was a very conservative driver. He was really lucky; he could have been the ninth fatality on that road in about four different ways.”