A 47-year-old woman and a 3-year-old girl died in an auto accident on Route 24 near Harford Mall Saturday afternoon after their SUV struck a tree and caught fire with the occupants still inside.
A third occupant, the driver's 16-year-old son, was rescued from the burning car and treated at the scene, Bel Air Police Chief Charles Moore said. The boy was taken to the Bel Air Police Department for support after the accident, according to the chief.
The victims' names have not been released pending notification of all of their relatives. All three victims were related, according to the chief.
The crash was reported at 2:34 p.m. The driver was traveling south on Route 24 after having turned right from Boulton. She crossed into the left turn lane, struck a curb, went into the median and then hit a tree in the median, according to Moore.
Bystanders rushed to try and save the victims from a vehicle engulfed in flames, but the fire was too hot.
"Bystanders tried to help them as much as they could," Moore said.
Bel Air resident Anna Mullaney and her husband were exiting the mall onto Route 24 when they saw the SUV suddenly burst into flames after the crash.
"We saw the smoke, and that's when we saw the fire," Mullaney said.
She and her husband, who declined to give his name, described seeing people run over to help with blankets and fire extinguishers, but the fire was too intense for them to do anything.
Stephanie Nicosia, 21, of Bel Air, and her mother, Diane, were driving north on Route 24 when they saw a column of dark smoke.
"I saw smoke, and then it just continued to get bigger and bigger and bigger," Stephanie said.
They turned to the right off the highway and circled around to the Bel Air Town Center parking lot across Route 24 from the mall, where they had a clearer view of the burning vehicle and the tree.
"It literally looked like a brush fire," Diane Nicosia recalled.
Her daughter recorded video of the fire from the edge of the road on her smartphone.
"The car was completely engulfed," Diane said. "It was pretty devastating to watch."
They also saw bystanders rushing over to put the fire out and help the victims.
"There were about four people with fire extinguishers that couldn't even get 10 feet close," Stephanie Nicosia said.
William McDermott, 16, of Bel Air, was eating with his family at the Chili's restaurant in the Town Center. He said he could see the smoke from the restaurant, which is near the opposite end of the shopping center at South Kelly Avenue.
He left the restaurant and moved toward the burning SUV on Route 24.
"I didn't want to get too close at first because I wasn't sure exactly what it was," he said. "I knew it was a fire of some sort but I didn't know what caused it."
William also recorded video of the fire.
"I was kind of surprised to see something like this in this area, because I've seen something like that on TV before but I've never seen anything this close to home," he said.
Firefighters from the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company arrived and extinguished the flames. The burned frame of the SUV was covered with a red tarp as police secured all of Route 24 between Boulton and Route 1 with yellow crime scene tape, blocking traffic in both directions.
Onlookers gathered on both sides of the highway as Bel Air Police officers and Maryland State Police troopers conducted their initial investigation. Members of the MSP's auto accident investigation team arrived later in the afternoon to assist local police.
The scene was then cordoned off with large tarps, Bel Air fire trucks and State Highway Administration trucks as firefighters cut the vehicle apart to free the victims.
The cause of the accident remained under investigation as of Saturday evening. Chief Moore said witnesses reported "limited traffic" around the SUV as the driver headed south.
Moore said investigators are considering mechanical issues with the vehicle or any other reason that would make the driver lose control.
"We're really just trying to figure out, why would this vehicle suddenly veer to the left and enter into the median over the curb?" he said.
Route 24 between Boulton Street and Route 1 was closed for several hours after the crash. It reopened shortly after 8 p.m.