Three killed as winter storm wreaks havoc across region; I-95 tanker crash part of 67-vehicle pileup in city

Two dead, 15 injured in 55-car pileup, tanker explosion on I-95 in freezing rain.

Icy conditions caused a deadly, 67-vehicle pileup and a fiery explosion along Interstate 95 in Baltimore on Saturday as the first significant winter storm of the season wreaked havoc across the region.

The fatal crash — captured in part by another motorist in a dramatic cellphone video — was one of hundreds of accidents in the icy weather system that grounded flights, cut power to thousands of homes and snarled traffic on one of the busiest weekends for holiday shopping of the year.

Officials reopened all lanes of I-95 late Saturday, but state police extended a travel advisory throughout the region into Sunday.

The accident on northbound I-95 between Caton Avenue and Washington Boulevard — in which a tanker carrying gasoline fell from a bridge and exploded on CSX Transportation railroad tracks below at about 5 a.m. — left two dead and nearly two dozen others injured, according to Maryland Transportation Authority Police and local hospital officials.

As of 10:30 a.m. Sunday, the University of Maryland Medical Center reported seven patients under care at Shock Trauma. Two patients were in critical condition, two in serious condition and three in fair condition, though no patients remain in the emergency department from the crash, officials said on Twitter.

Another accident on the same roadway, near Eastern Avenue about 4:45 a.m., resulted in a third death after a man running from the crash site fell or jumped over the elevated highway's jersey wall to his death below, MdTA police said.

And a third accident at about 5:30 a.m. resulted in a 15-car pileup on the Baltimore beltway at Southeast Freeway, closing the inner loop for hours.

Gov. Larry Hogan offered his condolences to the families of the dead, saying the state's "entire emergency management, transportation, and law enforcement resources are fully engaged in managing this situation and are working closely with local jurisdictions to provide needed support."

At BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, nearly 143 flights were canceled and 125 had been delayed as of early evening, according to flight tracking website FlightAware.com.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. reported nearly 7,000 customers without power in central Maryland at midday, though repairs were being made. Spokesman Aaron Koos said utility poles damaged in traffic accidents likely caused many of those outages.

Baltimore police responded to more than 200 calls for crashes in the city alone, and state police reported 377 across Maryland. The Maryland Transit Administration shut down light-rail service.

Freezing rain began falling in the Baltimore region between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., the National Weather Service said. Accumulation on roads was between 0.1 and 0.2 inches by 8 a.m. Areas of Harford County saw nearly 0.3 inches.

Dan Hoffmann, a meteorologist with the weather service, said conditions were the result of a "very cold air mass that was locked over the region" since earlier in the week. He said such air masses "do not tend to erode very peacefully."

"You had rain falling over sub-freezing air, and that caused a period of freezing rain, which, because the ground was so cold, stuck to everything, including roads," Hoffmann said. "It falls and it freezes on the surface, so it gets very treacherous very quickly, which is exactly what happened."

Cellphone video of the explosive I-95 crash showed the tanker careening down the highway, then striking the jersey wall, rolling off the highway and erupting into a fireball.

Marvellous Amasiatu, a nurse who lives in Owings Mills, said he recorded the tanker accident while sitting in his car on northbound I-95 shoulder. After playing in a late-night soccer game at an indoor arena in Laurel, Amasiatu traveled up the highway but pulled over when his car started sliding on the icy road.

He called 911 to describe conditions and report multiple vehicles, some of them trucks, colliding on the highway. That's when Amasiatu started recording the scene on his cellphone.

"Cars and trucks were coming in at 50 and 60 miles an hour," he said. "They were sliding and slamming, and I stayed on the line with 911 and had the video on for about five minutes."

"I was traumatized. I wish I could have helped. [The driver] could not stop. . . . People could not see what was ahead of them."

Lt. Kevin Ayd, a MdTA Police spokesman, said the driver of the tanker and one other driver were killed in the accident. He did not identify them — or the motorist who died after falling from the highway near Eastern Avenue — pending notification of their families.

The icy conditions "absolutely" played a role in the tanker driver losing control, but police will also be investigating whether there were other factors, including speed, Ayd said.

After the tanker went off the highway and exploded, it "kind of started a chain reaction" on the highway, as drivers began losing control and crashing into each other, he said.

"Drivers are driving up the road, the next thing they see is this, they react," he said.

The MdTA had pre-treated the section of the highway where the accident occurred on Friday, but "when Mother Nature decides to come — and in this instance it came as freezing rain — it automatically starts an icing effect," Ayd said. "And elevated roadways tend to be a lot colder than pavement."

Ayd said there were a large number of commercial vehicles and tractor trailers among the 67 vehicles involved in the crash, and the MdTA was clearing the northbound lanes of the highway — including the use of heavy machinery — Saturday evening before declaring it reopened before 10:30 p.m.

The Baltimore Ravens play a home game Sunday, and the route is expected to be heavily traveled for access to M&T Bank Stadium.

A total of 23 people were transferred to the University of Maryland Medical Center, including 16 to the hospital's emergency department and seven to Shock Trauma, the hospital said. Injuries included head trauma and broken bones, as well as lacerations, cuts and scrapes, the hospital said.

Of those at Shock Trauma, four were in critical condition, two were in serious condition and one was in fair condition, the hospital said late Saturday.

No serious injuries were reported in the crash on the beltway. The cause for all of the crashes remained under investigation.

Rob Doolittle, a CSX spokesman, said the tanker crashing on I-95 landed on CSX tracks, which were damaged by the resulting fire. However, those tracks are not part of the railroad's main line through the region, and their closure was not impacting rail traffic, he said.

As of Saturday evening, officials remained on the scene, along with Maryland Department of the Environment officials and CSX personnel and contractors, Doolittle said.

Those officials were "conducting first some environmental remediation to make sure there isn't any residual fuel from the tanker truck, and then our contractors will work to restore the damage to the tracks," Doolittle said. He said CSX expected crews to work through the weekend.

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh shared condolences to those affected by the I-95 pileup in a statement Saturday, and asked drivers to delay travel if possible.

"Today's icy road conditions remind us all that it is imperative to exercise extreme caution due to severe weather," she said. "I want to thank the emergency crews for their expedient response."

Hogan strongly urged Marylanders to "use common sense and put their safety first by heeding all travel warnings from state and local authorities."

"The First Lady and I send our deepest condolences and prayers to the families and loved ones of the individuals who lost their lives early this morning as a result of fatal accidents," he said.

The annual holiday open house at Government House in Annapolis was canceled, as were events throughout region. Many school systems canceled sporting events and other activities.

The icy rain caused breakfast with Santa at Eastpoint Mall to be canceled, and several stores opened late. But by Saturday afternoon shoppers were actively searching for holiday deals.

Alberta Willis, 59, of Govans, and her friend Pearl Diggs, 57, of Loch Raven, said they delayed shopping until later in the day to let the ice melt. Still, having seen the news of the deadly I-95 crash, they took it slow on the way.

Diggs noted the lack of normal holiday crowds in the mall. "It's actually comfortable in here," she said. "It's not mad crazy. The lines are moving. It kind of worked out for us."

Conditions had begun to improve by Saturday afternoon, with the number of homes without power dropping and roadways clearing up.

However, problems could arise again Sunday.

Hoffmann, with the weather service, said temperatures were expected to remain above freezing throughout Saturday night and into Sunday, possibly with the highest temperatures on Saturday coming just before midnight.

Still, "melting will be gradual because there was a significant amount of ice on the ground," he said.

Rain is expected Sunday, and temperatures are expected to drop quickly again Sunday night — meaning any standing water or puddles could refreeze and cause problems again Sunday night into Monday, Hoffmann said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Dan Rodricks contributed to this article.

Ice totals around Maryland

Allegany County: 0.25 inches

Anne Arundel County (BWI Airport): 0.20 inches

Baltimore County: 0.10 to 0.20 inches

Baltimore City: 0.20 inches

Calvert County: 0.13 inches

Harford County: 0.27 inches

Howard County: 0.10 inches

Montgomery County: 0.18 inches

Source: National Weather Service

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