A fast-moving low-pressure system that dove out of Canada dumped 2 to 5 inches of snow across much of Maryland yesterday and created havoc on the highways with hundreds of wrecks - including a 34-vehicle collision on the Baltimore Beltway and fatal crashes in Anne Arundel and Washington counties.
Vehicles spun out, flipped over and plowed into each other on slick roads as the snow, in quantities more than expected, fell and accumulated all day.
The storm was described as a quick-moving "Alberta clipper" by the National Weather Service, but it hardly seemed quick to area police departments and highway workers dealing with multiple-car accidents that closed large sections of major highways.
"It's just people not paying attention and not slowing down," said Baltimore County police Cpl. Jon Kelly, whose agency handled dozens of accidents throughout the day.
State police in Howard County blamed the year's first snowstorm for an eight-car pileup on eastbound Interstate 70 at the Patuxent River Bridge.
Near Braddock Heights in Frederick County, a firetruck heading to the scene of a crash flipped over on an icy road, injuring three firefighters and hitting a 44-year-old Middletown man who was helping the driver of a stranded car, police said.
The man, identified as John Main, was listed in critical condition last night at Washington County Hospital's trauma unit. One firefighter was listed in stable condition there, and the other two were released from Frederick Memorial Hospital after being treated for minor injuries, state police said.
Police in Baltimore reported at least 100 accidents, all relatively minor, during the storm, which left up to 4 inches of snow in the city.
But the day's biggest mess was the 34-vehicle tangle on the inner loop of the Beltway near the Route 702 split in Essex. The pileup injured 27 people and heavily damaged nearly all of the vehicles, according to state police.
As heavy snow fell and temperatures dropped, a woman driving east started the chain reaction about noon when she lost control of her Ford Escort on an overpass curve above railroad tracks, spun around and struck a retaining wall, said Tfc. Justin Trojan.
Oncoming motorists tried to avoid the Escort, but within seconds, 33 vehicles had struck each other, leaving the two-lane section of the Beltway littered with wreckage, Trojan said.
The injured were taken by Baltimore County ambulances to Franklin Square Hospital Center and Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Trojan said, and the most serious injury was a broken leg.
"It was a mess," Trojan said, "but fortunately no one was killed." The vehicles and debris were removed by 4 p.m., and the accident remains under investigation.
Anne Arundel County police said the weather was a factor in an afternoon crash that left a 72-year-old man dead in Odenton. The victim - William Richard Williams of the 300 block of Johnson Farm Lane in Glen Burnie - apparently lost control of his 1995 Toyota Camry, which hit a pole near Whiskey Bottom and Brock Bridge roads about 3:15 p.m., said police Sgt. Jim Cifala.
In Washington County, Andrea Gantt, 19, from Shippensburg, Pa., died from injuries she suffered when her 1998 Plymouth Breeze skidded off Interstate 81 at Hagerstown and hit a tree about 10:45 a.m., state police said. She died in the evening at Washington County Hospital.
In Montgomery County, two women died in another crash on wet roads - but police said the weather was not to blame. The accident occurred about 11 a.m. when a Toyota minivan struck a Plymouth automobile after running a red light at the intersection of Norbeck and Norwood roads, police said. The Plymouth's driver and her front-seat passenger died, while three children riding in the back seat of the car and two children in the minivan were injured.
The National Weather Service forecast yesterday morning had called for 1 to 2 inches across the Baltimore metropolitan region, but more snow materialized - in part because the clipper moving out of Canada and the upper Midwest carried more moisture than anticipated.
Snow amounts included 5 inches in Frederick and Montgomery counties, 4 1/2 inches in Edgewood, 4 inches in Parkville, 3 inches in Bowie, and more than 2 inches in Towson. The monitoring station at Baltimore-Washington International Airport measured 3 inches by evening, as the storm was ending.
"This was the high end of what a clipper can possibly do," said Christopher Strong, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va. "It was stronger than most clippers are."
State highway officials said they had expected that the snow would be "manageable" for their crews.
"We knew that it was coming, regardless of the exact timing of it," said David Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration, adding that pavement temperatures were high enough for salt to be effective.
But officials said motorists need to remember to drive carefully - particularly on icy bridges, ramps and overpasses.
Forecasters say the region can expect high temperatures in the mid-30s today, morning flurries and perhaps light snow, with an inch of accumulation possible.
Sun staff writer Richard Irwin contributed to this article.