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Chain-reaction crash kills 2, injures scores in Maryland along I-68

Saturday, May 24, 2003

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

GRANTSVILLE, Md. -- One moment it was a line of traffic, edging westward through fog that had hooded Interstate 68 and Big Savage Mountain all day.

The next moment, it was mayhem, a maelstrom of cars and trucks, crashing, skidding, shredding one another.

Fog shrouds wrecked cars in the aftermath of a pileup yesterday on Interstate 68 in western Maryland. Scores of vehicles were involved in a series of crashes that stretched for 20 miles. (Steve Bittner, Cumberland Times News via AP)

"Why won't they stop? Why won't they stop?" one woman screamed.

A man rushed from his vehicle, only to be cut down and killed six feet from a medial barrier and safety, rescuers said. A pregnant mother shrieked as she watched vehicles ram, then ram again into the van where her husband sat with their infant children.

"It was horrible," said Carol Morgan, driving alone on her way from Dumfries, Va., for a Memorial Day weekend with relatives in Connellsville. "They just kept hitting and hitting."

At mid-evening yesterday, eight hours after the fact, emergency officials tallying the loss said two were killed. They estimated that nearly 100 were injured -- from sprained wrists to severe trauma that could push the death toll higher. Hospitals in Cumberland, Md., said they treated 64, admitted six and transported one to a trauma hospital in Baltimore.

And they said 73 vehicles -- from Morgan's mangled Saturn to tractor-trailers -- were in the 200-yard line of wreckage that would keep I-68, 10 miles west of Cumberland, Md., closed all night and through this morning between the LaVale and Grantsville exits.

"There was screaming, so much screaming, and all these cars slamming into each other -- pow! pow! pow!" said Marion Kirk of Sterling, Va., as she arrived to join the 50 or so stranded motorists awaiting rides at the nearby Eastern Garrett Volunteer Fire Department hall.

"But I just thought about getting out of there. I thought, 'Let's minimize this,'" husband Bruce Kirk said. "Death didn't cross my mind until I saw -- until I saw the dead man lying in the road."

Big Savage Mountain is 2,900 feet above sea level where I-68 cuts through it.

Fall brings ice to the roadway, Garrett County Forensic Investigator Jim Wilburn said, and springs brings fog.

"The fog just rolls out," said Maryland State Police Sgt. Terry Fisher, who lives on the mountain and oversees a roadside truck weigh station. "I call it the doorway to hell."

Fifty vehicles collided in snow here in 1991. There was a 17-vehicle pileup seven years ago.

"This spring has been terrible," Eastern Garrett Deputy Fire Chief Steve Baer said. "It's like we've had fog four days out of every week."

Richard Hitchens, meteorologist for the National Weather Service's Baltimore-Washington office, said the weather situation that contributed to the chain-reaction accident is not unusual.

"The environment is very moist and there are low clouds and with a higher terrain, the low clouds meet the ground and you have dense fog conditions," Hitchens said.

"This is not uncommon at all in the spring, unfortunately, especially when you have east-northeast moist air flow with air coming off the ocean into the higher elevations."

He noted that there is about an 1,800-foot difference in elevation between Cumberland, where there was no fog, and Frostburg, near where the accident occurred, which was socked in with limited visibility.

Road cameras installed along Interstate 68 and available on the Maryland Department of Transportation Web site showed clear views of traffic at Cumberland but a wall of gray farther west on the interstate.

By 1:30 yesterday afternoon, visibility atop Big Savage wasn't much more than 200 feet, East Garrett firefighter Nick Wiland guessed.

Traffic was climbing west from Cumberland, past Frostburg.

Maybe a driver near the front of the pack saw a six-vehicle pileup that crews were clearing over in the eastbound lanes, Fisher said. Somebody braked. Vehicles collided. Cars skidded past. Some vehicles rammed the median guardrail.

When it was over, at the head of it all was a Chevrolet Suburban, its rear rammed in. Back through the line, a compact car was folded in half. Other bumpers looked no worse than the victims of rear-end collisions on a city street. Still other vehicles were unscathed.

One person Wilburn described as an older woman died when the car in which she was riding was demolished, with her still in the passenger seat.

Farther back, Eric Santore of Uniontown was watching the crashing around him and decided to abandon his vehicle. He began fumbling with the keys in the ignition.

"I was just trying to get those keys out. I couldn't, and I just said 'To heck with it,' and took off," he said.

"An old man was trapped in his truck, vehicles on both sides, so he couldn't get out," Wiland said. "He said, 'Don't worry. Deal with me when you can.'"

That was not for the better part of an hour.

A flood of ambulances and fire trucks came from across the Tri-State, rushing in to carry patients to Cumberland because medical helicopters could not put down in the dense fog.

In the meantime, passengers clambered across to the other side of the highway and began assisting one another as the first firefighters and medics arrived.

"People were screaming, bawling," said Sherry Merbaugh, who was with husband Jeremy, just three miles from their home in Grantsville when they got caught up in the crash.

Police kept a 20-mile stretch of I-68 shut down as investigators came from Baltimore to try to put together the pieces of how 73 vehicles were caught up in the wreck.

Others stood vigil at Cumberland's two hospitals. And still others came away relieved.

"For those of you watching at home," Kirk said after he was treated for an injured wrist, "we got away OK. We wore our seat belts. Wear your seat belt."

Staff writer Michael A. Fuoco contributed to this report.

Tom Gibb can be reached at tgibb@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

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