`It was billowing black smoke'

Nearby and miles away, people hear crash impact, see evidence of blaze

January 14, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

John Koenig was channel-surfing in his second-floor apartment in Relay yesterday afternoon when he heard a boom "10 times louder" than the banging and clanging he normally hears from the nearby train tracks.

"The sound was unbelievable. It rattled the windows," said Koenig, a disabled warehouse worker. "If I was asleep it would have woke me up."

Miles away in Catonsville, Donna Jessen looked out a large window in the Charlestown Retirement Community's sales office and was struck by what she saw off in the distance.

"It was billowing black smoke, so we knew something happened," said Jessen, a marketing assistant. "We thought at first it might have been a plane crash. That's how the smoke was."

Some thought it was an earthquake; others, a bomb going off or a terrorist attack. It turned out that a tanker truck had plunged over the side of the Interstate 895 overpass and crashed onto trucks and cars below as they headed toward Baltimore on Interstate 95.

The fiery collision left little but masses of steel on the highway and flames and thick smoke shooting up into the sky.

Those who live and work along the Howard County-Baltimore County line near there ran into the streets, dialed 911, scrambled to their television sets to learn what had happened. Others nearby on the highways were soon realizing how lucky they were to survive.

Jerry Sissler, of Perry Hall, was on I-895 approaching I-95 when he heard what he thought was a chemical blast.

"I saw this huge fireball. It was maybe 100 to 200 yards in front of me," said Sissler, a microbiologist who was heading to his lab at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. "You could see the grass on the median strip of 895 starting to catch on fire."

Sissler said he was quickly engulfed in dense smoke. He said cars around him started to back up, and he was able to turn his Toyota around and drive away.

"If I traveled another 15 seconds, I probably would have died in it," he said. "I've never experienced anything like that. I could tell by how high the flames and smoke were that if people didn't get out of there in a few minutes, they were probably going to be consumed by the smoke or the fire."

In nearby Elkridge, Tim Coleman had no idea what was going on.

"It shook the house like an earthquake, but a lot more violent," said Tim, a 15-year-old Howard High School sophomore. His family's historic Victorian home is a couple of hundred yards from I-95.

Tim was upstairs in his bedroom, listening to music and surfing the Internet when he heard the explosion. He watched his waterbed shaking. His mother, Sue, was downstairs in the kitchen working a crossword puzzle.

They grabbed their coats and ran out of the house toward the highway to see what was happening. They saw traffic stop and people getting out of their cars on the eerily still roadway.

Down the street from the Colemans, 17-year-old Jennifer Coggins was working on her computer when she heard the frightening noise. She dashed outside and saw a stream of black, billowing smoke overhead. "I was scared," she said. "I figured it was a terrorist attack."

In Relay, a small Baltimore County community just across the Patapsco River from the crash site, 82-year-old Margaret Bennett had been out in her yard raking leaves but had come indoors to rest.

"All of a sudden I heard a real loud bang," she said. "Smoke covered the hill across from my house. It was solid black. I couldn't see anything. Smoke just kept coming up in puffs."

The house Bennett has lived in all her life is separated from I-95 by a stand of trees. As she spoke, she looked out the window at flashing lights of emergency vehicles on the highway.

Other Maryland highway crashes

Three major accidents in the past 15 years occurred at Maryland highway bridges, two of them hit by tractor-trailers:

Oct. 5, 2001: A tractor-trailer carrying eight Navy cruise missiles filled with rocket fuel clipped the wall of a bridge on Interstate 70 near Frederick and tumbled down an embankment, causing hours-long traffic jams and the evacuation of nearby homes. Traffic backed up for miles and 26 houses were evacuated within a 1-mile radius of the scene. No one was injured.

June 8, 1999: An unused, concrete pedestrian bridge was hit by a tractor-trailer and collapsed on the Baltimore Beltway in Arbutus at the height of the evening rush hour, killing one driver and injuring three others. A slab of the 42-year-old span hit three vehicles, causing scores of motorists to slam on their brakes and tying up traffic for hours.

Aug. 31, 1989: A bridge carrying Route 198 over the Baltimore-Washington Parkway near Laurel collapsed during the morning rush hour, injuring 10 construction workers and four motorists who were pulled from the wreckage. The accident occurred as construction workers were pouring concrete for the bridge deck. One motorist suffered severe brain damage.

The most deadly traffic accidents in Maryland history:

April 11, 1935: A Baltimore and Ohio express train in Rockville struck a school bus carrying 27 Washington County students, killing 14.

June 7, 1954: Ten people died when two cars collided head-on near the crest of a hilly curve near the Calvert-Anne Arundel county line.

April 23, 1979: Ten Fort Meade teen-agers in a compact pickup truck were killed when the truck crashed into trees in Anne Arundel County.

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