Christopher Polyniak and a colleague encountered some rain and light fog yesterday morning as they drove east on Interstate 70 in western Howard County, but they weren't overly concerned.
Suddenly, they found themselves enveloped in a soupy, treacherous fog.
"We couldn't see the front of our hood, it was that thick," said Polyniak, 31, a computer specialist from Frederick.
Seconds later, they heard the sounds of automobiles colliding. Then a vehicle struck their minivan in the left rear. Their car was struck twice more before they could pull over to the side of the highway, Polyniak said in a telephone interview.
When the fog began to lift and Polyniak and others emerged from their vehicles, they surveyed a sprawling scene of damaged cars, minivans and trucks, and vehicle parts, license plates, tires and glass strewn across the highway and the median. Polyniak said his neck was sore after the accident.
Zero visibility was a contributing factor in the 13-car pileup that occurred near Route 94 -- Woodbine Road -- and caused traffic backups for several miles in both directions for hours, Maryland State Police said.
Sgt. Thornnie Rouse, a state police spokesman, said 11 people were taken by ambulance to hospitals by about 9 a.m., including four who went to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. The fog prevented a state police MedEvac helicopter from landing to help transport the injured, he said.
Rouse said the victims did not have life-threatening injuries, which he attributed to seat belts being worn by everyone involved.
"We're really very lucky no one was killed," Rouse said. "Especially given how some of these vehicles look."
The pileup began shortly after 8:30 a.m. with a minor crash involving three cars traveling east on I-70 that was followed by a 13-vehicle chain-reaction crash, police said.
During the series of crashes, the driver of a black Toyota 4-Runner lost control and plowed through the median, struck two cars and collided with an 18-wheeler traveling west on I-70, state police said. A total of 19 vehicles were involved.
Police said they want to talk to the individuals involved in the initial crash. The motorists in those three vehicles checked their damage and left the scene, witnesses told state police.
"Something caused all this to start," Rouse said.
Rouse said the crashes stopped traffic in both directions for about an hour before troopers opened some lanes.
Reached by telephone yesterday afternoon, Stefan Zencuch, a Ukrainian Orthodox priest, said he was driving west on I-70 in the left lane with his two dogs when the Toyota 4-Runner crashed into the front left side of his Ford Escort, hit another truck and then was struck by the 18-wheeler.
Zencuch ended up in a ditch and smoke started coming from his car so he grabbed his dogs -- a pair of twin Lhasa Apsos named Blackie and Blondie, who were unhurt but he said "scared to death" -- and left the vehicle, he said.
"I've never been in anything like that," the Columbia resident said. "We are lucky, I tell you."
Gary Densmore, a tow truck driver with Browning Towing & Recovery in Mount Airy, said he arrived on the scene about 8:45 a.m. to what he described as "a mess." Densmore, 54, who said he has been to many accidents on I-70 for his job, said he'd never seen such a bad pileup during his career with Browning.
State police said charges may be filed after an investigation.
Sun staff photographer Doug Kapustin contributed to this article.