Pileups on I-68 injure dozens

THE BALTIMORE SUN

About 85 vehicles driving along a foggy mountaintop in Garrett County crashed yesterday in a series of accidents that killed at least two people and injured more than 60, authorities said.

The accidents left a tangle of damaged cars, trucks and tractor-trailers in the eastbound and westbound lanes of Interstate 68. Firefighters and emergency workers worked through the fog and rain on Big Savage Mountain, one of the highest points in Maryland, to rescue the injured.

"It looked like a junkyard, cars piled on top of each other," said Keith Bailey, 48, a truck driver from Grand Rapids, Mich., who was in the pileup. "There were cars you couldn't even recognize. There was one guy next to my truck who was dead - his car was just demolished."

Bailey was driving westbound, his truck filled with powdered sand, when he came upon the accident.

"I came over the hill, and all of a sudden there was a wall of vehicles 15 feet in front of me. In 15 feet you can't stop, not when it's slippery like this."

He slammed into the vehicles, demolishing the truck, but the chain reaction continued. "Even after I stopped, cars were hitting me."

Sacred Heart and Memorial hospitals in Cumberland treated 61 people, said Kathy Rogers, a spokeswoman for Western Maryland Health Systems, which operates the hospitals. All but three were treated and released.

A severely injured person was taken by ambulance to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. The fog made a speedier helicopter rescue impossible.

As many as 50 people were taken to the nearby Eastern Garrett County Volunteer Force and Rescue Department in Finzel, about a mile from the accident scene, to spend the night.

The identities of victims were not immediately released.

"There were multiple vehicles in the median, tractor-trailers that hit each other against the guardrail in very severe fog," said Jim Raley, president of the Eastern Garrett County fire company.

The accidents, which took place in the early afternoon, occurred as motorists were embarking on Memorial Day holidays. To prevent further pileups, police closed a 20-mile stretch of I-68 between LaVale in Allegany County and Grantsville in Garrett County. The strip was expected to remain closed through this morning.

The first accident occurred about 1:30 p.m. in the eastbound lanes and involved at least five vehicles. Just as police were clearing the lanes, cars began crashing into each other in the westbound lanes, causing a much larger pileup that spilled onto the median.

The mountain, which reaches an elevation of 2,991 feet, is frequently subject to fog and ice, Raley said. But yesterday, the weather was worse than usual, with "exceptionally thick fog," he said.

Fire and rescue workers from Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia responded immediately and worked into the night. Some used extraction equipment to help those trapped in their vehicles.

Thirty ambulances from several jurisdictions were dispatched to the scene.

By early evening, Maryland State Police investigators were still trying to get to the scene to reconstruct what happened, said David Buck, a State Highway Administration spokesman.

Ruth Fodrey, proprietor of the Walnut Ridge Bed and Breakfast in Grantsville, said she had driven over the mountain shortly before the first crash and could barely see a car-length ahead. "Savage Mountain was the thickest fog we traveled through," Fodrey said, adding that a misty rain was falling.

Travelers who were detoured off the highway jammed restaurants, gas stations and convenience stores to wait out traffic that clogged smaller roads that served as alternate routes.

About 200 people swamped the Penn Alps Restaurant and Craft Shop in Grantsville.

"This was supposed to be a family reunion at Deer Valley Camp, which is nearby," said Ruth Rutter of Pittsburgh.

The family was scheduled to gather for dinner at the restaurant before heading in a convoy to the camp. Rutter spent an hour or two waiting for family members to show up, wondering whether they were injured in the crash.

Finally, she learned by cell phone that they were caught in traffic but were safe.

"I was very shaken by the whole thing," she said. "I'm 69 years old, and these are my grandchildren and children. One can only imagine the terrible things that could happen."

Country inns that were booked solid for the weekend stood nearly empty by early evening, as guests traveling to Western Maryland mountains were still making their way through traffic.

Donna Kelly, owner of the Elliott House Victorian Inn in Grantsville, said the first guests arrived at 6:45 p.m.

"They were stuck in traffic for a few hours and tried side roads, and they were stuck there, too, because everyone is trying side roads," she said.

Kelly, whose inn is two miles from the accident scene, called guests, warning them not to come because of the accident and weather.

"I have heard from some who said they would still come. It is not bad here, but a few miles away it is really nasty. We have been hearing sirens and ambulances since about 2 p.m," she said.

The Associated Press, Sun researchers Paul McCardell and Jean Packard and Jill Zarend contributed to this article.

Major accidents

Twenty-seven people were injured Jan. 5 as 34 vehicles crashed during a snowstorm on the Baltimore Beltway.

Twenty-three people were injured Dec. 13 when more than 50 vehicles collided on an icy stretch of Interstate 64 in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Afton, Va.

Forty-one people were injured Nov. 3 in a 198-vehicle pileup in dense fog on the Long Beach Freeway, 25 miles south of Los Angeles.

Ten died and dozens were injured in an accident Oct. 11 involving 38 vehicles on a foggy stretch of Interstate 43, 60 miles north of Milwaukee, Wisc.

Source: news reports

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