Middle Thorofare Bridge opens for boat traffic on a summer afternoon.

By Bill Barlow

DIAMOND BEACH – A family heading to an evening in Cape May say they received a shocking surprise Aug. 1 when the drawbridge began to open with them on it. 

Jackie Naphys, of West Deptford, said her husband Terence was driving when they headed over the Middle Thorofare Bridge traveling from the Wildwoods toward Cape May.

They paid the toll, she said, and started across the bridge when it began to open while their car was still on the drawbridge portion.

“It was crazy,” she said. “When we were right at the very edge, I said to my husband, ‘I think the bridge may be opening.’”

He accelerated forward rather than remaining on the bridge and risking the car dropping backward. Naphys said witnesses described it like a scene from the “Dukes of Hazzard,” with the car dropping down to the bridge deck.

“When we landed, the lady in front of us had pulled over. She said it was 4 to 6 feet up in the air when we went over,” Naphys said.

The four people in the car were bruised and shaken, but not seriously hurt, she said.

As of Aug. 8, the car was still being evaluated in the collision shop, so she did not know the extent of the damage. She said they were still sore, but getting better.

“It wasn’t really scary until we landed,” she said.

They called the police and a report was filed, she said. Lower Township Police did not respond to a request for comment.

The span is within Lower Township and operated by the Cape May County Bridge Commission.

Commission Chairman Patrick Rosenello said the matter is under investigation by the commission, and by the county, but said he could offer no further detail, or explain what could have gone wrong.

“I can’t comment on this because it’s an open and ongoing investigation,” he said.

According to Naphys, the toll collector allowed three cars onto the bridge just before the opening: the woman driving in front of their car, and another driver behind them. She said the driver behind them paid the toll but stopped when he saw the drawbridge rising and yelled for the bridge opening to stop.

When the Naphys' car dropped out of sight, he believed they fell to the water, Naphys said.

The bridge has traffic lights and a barrier that drops down to block traffic before the bridge begins to open. The barriers are set at either side of the bridge, but Naphys said she did not see anything blocking the way, adding that they certainly did not try to race ahead to beat the bridge lifting.

“We did not go home that way,” she said. In fact, she says she does not expect to use that bridge again.

She and other family members said the toll collector indicated that sun glare prevented him from seeing that their car was still on the bridge, but that could not be independently confirmed.

“You just really can’t imagine in this day and age that’s the way it operates,” Naphys said.

The family regularly visits the area. She said her husband’s family has had a house in North Wildwood since the 1970s.

The Middle Thorofare Bridge opens more than any of the other drawbridges in Cape May County, because of the commercial fishing fleet plying Cape May Inlet and the Atlantic.

It’s also the bridge that county officials say they have the most concern for, because of its age and condition.

Opened in the 1940s, it’s officially listed in poor condition. County officials hope to replace it with a modern, fixed span bridge, but those plans would cost in the neighborhood of $200 million.

To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.