Witnesses and emergency workers were amazed that no one was killed yesterday when a series of collisions involving 14 vehicles turned Interstate 83 in northern Baltimore County into a fiery junkyard.
Ten people were injured -- one of them reported in serious condition at Maryland Shock Trauma Center -- in the pileups that left a trail of shattered glass and twisted and burned wreckage in the northbound lanes at the bridge over Gunpowder Falls.
"It's one of the most dramatic scenes without a loss of life we've seen," said 1st Sgt. Michael J. Fischer, supervisor of the state police accident reconstruction team that was trying to determine what happened.
Witnesses described a scene of horror that began about 1: 30 p.m., when five cars got tangled in a relatively minor accident just north of the bridge. As traffic slowed, they said, a flatbed tractor-trailer barreled into other vehicles, clipping another truck rig and smashing into the back of a white minivan that burst into flames.
It produced a fireball 15 feet high, and a chain-reaction that scattered four other vehicles across the two-lane bridge -- and all of them were caught in the blaze spread by leaking fuel.
South of the bridge, according to police and witnesses, a third collision occurred as another tractor- trailer hit the back of a minivan.
Police said charges were pending against the driver of the flatbed rig, which was hauling spools of sheet metal. His name was not immediately available.
"That truck came out of nowhere and just creamed those cars over there," said Ray Ferrand, pointing to the fast lane on the bridge. "As soon as he hit the minivan, flames shot down from underneath the cab of the truck. As the truck was going forward, the flames were going forward at the same speed.
"When I saw that white minivan get hit, I said there's no way anybody walks out of that," he said. "People were getting out of their cars, and there were flames all around."
Another witness, Harold Thornton, said: "There was a lot of smoke just barreling, and there were a couple of explosions and windows started popping."
Inside the minivan were a man and a 7-year-old girl. Charlie Pfaunmiller, driver of the tractor-trailer clipped by the flatbed truck, said he heard the girl's screams and saw a man from one of the crashed cars run to help her escape.
Ferrand -- a salesman from Long Island, N.Y., who was traveling to Harrisburg, Pa., from Washington -- said he ran out to help crash victims scramble to safety. He said he saw an elderly couple inside a burning car -- and then saw the man kick out a window to help them flee.
Because flames and smoke made the center of the highway impassable, victims had to escape by walking along the edge of the bridge on the right side of the road -- and climbing over the hood of a Ford Taurus that had spun in front of Pfaunmiller's truck.
Ferrand said he helped about seven of them over the hood. "They were pretty bloody, pretty beat up," he said. His blue work shirt was stained with the blood.
"I've seen bad wrecks before but never anything like this," said Pfaunmiller, a 20-year driver returning after hauling a load of produce from Harrisburg to Baltimore. "It's a miracle nobody got killed."
Said Sgt. Laura Lu Herman, a state police spokeswoman: "None of these people have suffered life-threatening injuries."
Police said four victims were flown by state police helicopter to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. One of them was reported in serious condition last night, another was released after treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and the status of the other two could not be determined.
L Three people with minor injuries refused hospital treatment.
The father and daughter in the minivan -- who were from Johnstown, Pa. -- were taken to Greater Baltimore Medical Center. Dr. David Strauss, who treated them in the emergency room, said the father told him he threw the girl out of a
passenger window to save her from spreading flames.
"He noticed flames in the back of the van and he couldn't get his daughter's door open," Strauss said. "Her window was open and he decided he would have to toss her through the window to get her out."
That proved difficult, Strauss said, because of a ring of fire around the van. "He had to throw her hard enough to clear that ring of fire and that's what he did, eventually climbing out of the window himself."
The father suffered muscle strain and some burns. Hospital staff tried to soothe the frightened girl, whose face, arms and abdomen were scraped and bruised. Both were discharged at 6: 30 p.m., and picked up by relatives who live in the area.
"They're very, very lucky people," the doctor said.
Police closed the entrances to Interstate 83 north and south of the accident site for hours, while emergency vehicles and helicopters shuttled in and then left with victims. The injured lay on a grassy bank on the side of the highway to await medical treatment.
Below the bridge, state and county hazardous materials crews worked to contain diesel fuel that spilled into Gunpowder Falls.
Hours after the crash, the acrid smell of burned rubber filled the air. Most of the vehicles were little more than shells. A charred Mazda pickup truck lay on its side. Near the burned-out Taurus, three Barbie dolls lay on the concrete bridge, which was covered with soot and the foam used by firefighters to extinguish the blaze.
The flatbed truck remained in the fast lane. The rubber on its tires was burned off, leaving wheels shrouded in steel radial belts.
Fischer, the head of the state police accident team, said the flatbed rig would be towed to a storage yard, where investigators would inspect it for mechanical defects that might have been a factor.
"At least as best we can -- we don't know how much we'll be able to inspect," said Fischer, gesturing toward the truck's burned remains.
As crews worked to clean the wreckage, Rudolph and Leslie Gleichman stood by their Dodge Caravan, which was damaged in the third accident. They had been on their way from St. Michaels to visit their daughter and grandchildren in Palmyra, Pa., when their van was hit from behind by a tractor-trailer, smashing a rear window and revealing gladiolas destined for their daughter's home.
Rudolph Gleichman said he saw the flatbed truck fishtail past him, and onto the bridge. He said he narrowly missed being involved in the mess there.
"The Lord was with us," he said.
Pub Date: 8/30/96