Decades after tragedy, Gwinnett bridge to get commissioner’s name

Buford commissioners will set the 2019 millage rate and 2020 budget Aug. 5. (Courtesy City of Buford)

Buford commissioners will set the 2019 millage rate and 2020 budget Aug. 5. (Courtesy City of Buford)

Five Forsyth County teenagers went out joyriding on Nov. 8, 1970. The group of girls, ranging in age from 14 to 17, drove south into Buford. As they began to cross Ga. 20, they were struck by an oncoming train. All five were killed instantly, but the train kept going for more than a quarter of a mile, dragging the car along with it.

There was no signal at the intersection where Ga. 20 and Peachtree Industrial Boulevard now meet. Gwinnett County Commissioner Maron Buice had been asking for expanded traffic signals in the years before the fatal crash, making it a central argument in his 1968 campaign, but his requests hadn’t gotten much attention.

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“My mission was to get some signals on that crossing. There had been several wrecks there already,” Buice said. “I wanted to get elected and see if I could get some signals here.”

With five young women dead and two counties mourning, Buice said his colleagues began to listen. The board of commissioners approved plans for a new bridge to be built at the crossing to help drivers bypass the train tracks. In 1975, the bridge was finished. Now, 44 years after the project’s completion and 49 after the tragic crash, the bridge will be named after Buice.

The Gwinnett County of 1970 was significantly more rural and less developed than the county is currently, with few traffic signals and many roads still unpaved, Buice said.

“Everything we had in north Gwinnett was dirt roads,” Buice said.

The bridge was a big ask; it cost more than $2 million, a hefty price tag at the time, Buice said. But the wreck convinced Buice’s fellow commissioners that it would be worth it.

“It was a dangerous crossing,” Buice said. “[The county] did a study and it was the most dangerous crossing in Gwinnett County.”

Without the bridge, Gwinnett’s already congested traffic could be even worse today, said Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash. Nash was the county’s finance director during Buice’s tenure as commissioner.

“I cannot imagine the issues we would have had on Ga. 20 (without the bridge),” Nash said. “It’s also a symbol of a community that’s rural recognizing the need for a change … All of this is a great illustration of how things came to be in Gwinnett County.

The bridge heralded new infrastructure projects in the county, said. state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford. Unterman introduced the legislation required to name the Ga. 20 bridge, which is in her district, after Buice.

“The ’70s were a very significant time to have that key infrastructure built,” Unterman said. “There was no Spaghetti Junction. There were no other major bridges in Gwinnett County.”

When the bridge was built, some suggested it be named for Buice, but he declined at the time, saying it could be construed as “too political.” So why now, 44 years later? The 93-year-old Buice didn’t mince words.

“I don’t want it to be a memorial bridge,” Buice said with a chuckle.

The bridge will be dedicated in an Aug. 31 ceremony. Every current and former commissioner has been invited, and the public is welcome, Unterman said. Because the intersection sees heavy traffic, the ceremony will be held at 1 p.m. in the Sugar Hill E-Center, located at 5019 W. Broad St. NE.

Cumming teens killed in November 8, 1970 train crash

Linda Lou Holtzclaw, 17

Patricia Gail Holtzclaw, 15

Kathy Hotlzclaw, 14

Peggy Sue Daniels, 16

Cristi Martin, 15

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