Three people were killed and five others injured yesterday as seven vehicles collided on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge - the deadliest accident there in more than a decade and one of the worst in its history.
The pileup occurred just after 4 p.m. on the newer, three-lane span after a trailer being towed by a sport utility vehicle broke loose, and other drivers swerved to avoid impacts. Also involved were two pickup trucks, a flatbed truck, tractor-trailer tanker rig, work van and a car - the latter nearly obliterated.
"I don't know exactly what happened; the tanker hit his brakes and went into the middle lane," said Valerie Sullivan, 59, who was driving a few car lengths back, returning to Cape St. Claire after a Kent Island shopping trip for Mother's Day with her 6-year-old grandson.
Sullivan said she ducked and pushed down the boy, who was riding with a seatbelt next to her. "I thought maybe we were going under the tanker," she said.
After narrowly avoiding the pileup, she saw one vehicle that had not: "The car was absolutely destroyed. There's nothing left. I didn't realize it was a car at first."
At a news conference last night, Marcus L. Brown, chief of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, still was unable to list the sequence of collisions after the trailer careened into the path of westbound traffic at a bend about a mile from the western end.
Brown said structural engineers inspected the bridge and determined it is "safe and sound," and two of the lanes were reopened to traffic by 11:30 last night. But even with debris removed, the investigation of the accident was continuing.
The champagne-colored SUV - towed last night to the transportation authority facility near Sandy Point - appeared to have little if any damage. But a red pickup truck also moved there from the bridge was mangled.
Brown said six of the vehicles had been westbound, the other eastbound. Police would not divulge the vehicles in which those killed - all men - had been riding, or whether the victims were Maryland residents.
Sarah K. Harrison, spokeswoman for the Queen Anne's County emergency operations department, said more than 50 police officers and emergency and highway workers were at the scene in the hours after the crash, sorting out the mess and directing cars in the miles-long, bumper-to-bumper standstill behind the horrific scene.
About 6 p.m., police began directing motorists to turn around and return to Kent Island. They were advised to follow U.S. 301 north to Newark, Del., to reach Interstate 95 - about a 90-minute detour for those heading to Baltimore.
According to police and hospital officials, one of the injured was flown by helicopter to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. Four others had lesser injuries, at least three of them receiving treatment at area hospitals.
The accident, according to archives of The Sun, appeared to be the third triple-fatality in the 55-year history of the span, named for Gov. William Preston Lane Jr. All occurred on the three-lane span that opened in 1973 chiefly for westbound traffic. At times it accommodates two-way traffic - as was the case yesterday afternoon, and in the previous accidents in 1992 and 1996 that each left three dead.
Yesterday's accident left the long flatbed truck diagonally blocking most of the bridge's three lanes - its cab against a guardrail.
The cab of the silver tanker hauling animal fat could be seen behind it in aerial views, with the two big vehicles pushing a smaller vehicle against the eastbound lane's guardrail. A damaged red pickup was in front of them, and trailing them all was a mangled vehicle - apparently a car and nearly unrecognizable.
"The guardrails are designed so they can handle impact," Chief Brown said at the news conference.
People who were traveling in vehicles immediately behind them could recount nearly two hours later only glimpses of the accident. Neil and Dottie Burke were heading from Milford, Del., to pick up friends at BWI Marshall Airport.
"The first thing I saw was some stuff, debris from the flatbed truck, like he had hit something," Neil Burke said. "Then there was more stuff flying in the air, so I knew the tanker truck had hit something, too. The flatbed truck was in the right or center lane and wound up going sideways. We didn't see what caused it."
Andrew Kelley, 18, from Pasadena, said he was three or four car lengths back from the crash. "There was an ambulance in the middle lane going westbound, but it wasn't in the accident. I saw, I think it was a tanker, hit a black car and everything is just a mangled mess here now."
The original, 4.3-mile bridge opened July 30, 1952, with one lane in each direction, replacing ferry service across the bay in the same area. The bridge contributed to the demise of the popular bay steamers between Baltimore and beach resorts across the Chesapeake.
The first fatal accident came a little more than 10 months later - a head-on crash between a car and a truck tractor that claimed the lives of a West Virginia couple, according to stories in Sun archives.
Sun photographer Glenn Fawcett and researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
Read updated coverage on the Bay Bridge crash at baltimoresun.com/bridgecrash