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SCDOT corrects 'Coffin Corridor' after more than 60 tree-related deaths in five years

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After nearly a quarter of deaths within the last five years along Jasper County's 34-mile stretch of Interstate 95 involved vehicles running into trees, South Carolina Department of Transportation is correcting "Coffin Corridor." (Credit: Josie Gregory)

Nearly a quarter of the deaths within the last five years along Jasper County's 34-mile stretch of Interstate 95 involved vehicles running into trees, and the South Carolina Department of Transportation is now correcting what was known as "Coffin Corridor."

SCDOT is cutting trees in the median, but one county leader is not convinced the state's plan will save lives.

According to SCDOT data, a crash occurs in "Coffin Corridor" at least once a day.

Their data also found the number of tree-related deaths along I-95 in Jasper County in the last five years is more than any other county that I-95 touches in the entire state.

"I know it's going to be bad. And I know that I'll end up having to deal with the families," Jasper County Coroner Martin Sauls, III, said.

Sauls said he still remembers the day in September 2015 when he got a call that a semi-truck driver had veered off of I-95 into the tree-filled median.

He said the son was in a separate semi ahead of his father, but around mile-marker 13, he noticed his father was not behind him in his own semi anymore.

"He turned around at the Ridgeland exit and went back, and that's when he saw the truck in the median," he said.

Sauls said Eddins, Sr. died of blunt force trauma.

He said getting a call another crash has occurred in "Coffin Corridor" is all too familiar.

"First thing they do is jerk the wheel, and it sets them spinning and they just crash into the trees ... By the time the vehicle is tangled with all those trees, it's just a balled up mass of metal," he said.

Trees line a majority of Jasper County's section of I-95. In some places the trees sit almost 20 feet off of the road, but in many places they sit 10 feet or less.

"If a car leaves the road, and they hit a tree, it's not going to be good," Toby Wickenhoefer, SCDOT Jasper County Engineer, said.

SCDOT's own safety guidelines require any hazards in the median must be at least 30 feet from the edge of the roadway.

The state began looking into the issue five years ago and now, as part of a $9 million project, they are cutting trees in the median to comply with their own safety guideline. Trees will be cut from the Georgia border up to the Hampton County line.

If the median is less than 160 wide, all of the trees in the median will go. If the median is more than 160 wide, trees will be cut to create a 55-foot clear zone on each side.

"By giving them that additional clear zone on the inside and outside, if I leave the road, my chances are pretty good then," Wickenhoefer said.

SCDOT will also install rumble strips to warn drivers they are about to leave the roadway. Cable barriers will also be installed in the median.

Coroner Sauls is not convinced cutting trees is the sole answer. "There's already more traffic on I-95 than it was designed to handle," he said.

Jasper County Sheriff Chris Malphrus said it is also what people are doing behind the wheel. "They take this opportunity to get on the cellphone or go faster. All that causes accidents," Sheriff Malphrus said.

Sheriff Malphrus admits with a 650 square mile county, it can be hard to patrol I-95 as much as he would like.

He said his staffing level has struggled to keep up with the patrolling demand. Therefore, he will be asking the Jasper County Council for money to hire three additional part-time deputies to increase patrols along "Coffin Corridor."

"It was beautiful to ride down 95 and see the trees, but however, you know the state is taking a measure I think will save lives," he said.

The interstate is messy now, but work should be completed by Spring 2018.

In the meantime, single lane closures on the inside southbound lanes of I-95 have started so crews can haul off cut trees.

The lane will be closed from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., Monday through Friday until February.