A fuel tanker veered off an overpass and plunged onto Interstate 95 in Howard County yesterday afternoon, killing at least four people, triggering huge explosions and towering flames, and shutting down the East Coast's main highway into the night.
The tanker was curling around the overpass on southbound Interstate 895 about 2:45 p.m. when it jackknifed, flipped down an embankment and landed in the northbound I-95 lanes, police and witnesses said.
Unable to stop in time, four northbound vehicles - police described them as a tractor-trailer, another large truck, a pickup truck and a car - crashed into the tanker.
The tanker, carrying what officials said was either gasoline or propane, burst into flames, witnesses said. The fire rose a hundred feet into the air and consumed the vehicles, leaving a blackened expanse of burning and contorted scraps of metal.
Barbara LeKarz, 47, of Ellicott City, was driving north on I-95 when she saw the tanker fall from the overpass and the four vehicles disappear in front of her as she yanked her car to the side of the road. "It was a wall of flame. It was like they were just gone," she said.
Thomas Hooper Jr., 34, of Randallstown, was also driving north on I-95 when he saw the conflagration before him.
"It just exploded. It was a ball of fire," Hooper said. "I was terrified. The heat was incredible. It just exploded in front of me."
Only one person - a driver or passenger from a truck on I-95 - survived the five-vehicle crash, police said last night. The number of victims, none identified late last night, depended on whether the vehicles were carrying passengers, said Maryland State Police Superintendent Tim Hutchins.
Late last night, law enforcement officials searching through the charred remains said they had discovered four bodies and might have found two more.
It would be some time before investigators could pick through the devastation to determine just how many people were killed, Hutchins said.
Gary McLhinney, chief of the Maryland Transportation Police, said it was also too soon to identify the remains found.
"We can't even tell what cars we've got, they're so mangled," said McLhinney.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said there were no indications that the crash was an act of terrorism, a possibility many in the area feared when they heard the explosion and saw the tall cloud of smoke climbing from the fire. The fire also did not appear to do serious environmental damage, Ehrlich said.
But that offered little solace after an accident that could rank among the state's deadliest. Ten Fort Meade teen-agers in a pickup truck were killed in 1979 when it crashed into trees, and 10 people were killed in a head-on collision near the Calvert-Anne Arundel county line in 1954.
"This is a horrible, horrendous accident," Ehrlich said. "The [victims'] families need our prayers. This is a very difficult day."
I-95 in Howard County - a stretch that carries nearly 200,000 cars a day - was closed in both directions through the evening rush hour, as police tried to divert traffic onto nearby roads such as U.S. 1, Route 100 and Route 175. Traffic was backed up as far north as Interstate 395 in Baltimore and as far south as Route 32 in Howard County.
Two southbound lanes were opened around 7 p.m., but the northbound highway remained closed late last night as crews searched the scene and cleared the far-flung debris. State highway officials said they hoped to have northbound lanes open this morning, though they couldn't guarantee it.
While damage to the northbound road was not as serious as was initially feared, officials said some repaving would have to be done to cover deep gouges left by the fire.
After structural examinations, officials said the I-895 overpass also seemed to have avoided serious damage. They expected to reopen it early today.
The tanker's first explosion, followed by four or five more, rocked the surrounding area as far as a half-mile away, startling residents and sparking immediate fears of a terrorist attack related to I-95, the Harbor Tunnel, nearby Amtrak and commuter rail lines, or Baltimore-Washington International Airport, just a few miles to the northeast.
Gloria Berthold, 49, was walking from her home on nearby Old Lawyers Hill Road in Elkridge and feared the worst when she heard the deafening explosion.
"My first reaction was a bomb - more than a crash," Berthold said. "It didn't seem like an accident. It seemed like something more serious."
Outside her house, Berthold said she could see flames shooting as high as 100 feet into the air. Smoke was everywhere and the fumes, "closed up your throat - it was hard to breathe."
The explosion was heard even by Billie Ann Blakely, a 19-year-old resident of the Avalon section of Baltimore County who went deaf in 2002 and obtained a device last August that restored part of her hearing.
"All of a sudden I could hear a really loud ka-boom. Then it started popping and another boom hit," she said.