50 people injured in series of I-95 crashes

About 90 vehicles involved in storm-related accidents along stretch of highway

All lanes closed for hours

October 17, 2004|By Michael Dresser, David Nitkin and Eric Siegel | Michael Dresser, David Nitkin and Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

A fast-moving line of late-afternoon thunderstorms plowed into Interstate 95 traffic north of Baltimore yesterday, causing 11 separate accidents from White Marsh to Bel Air that sent about 50 people to hospitals and caused widespread traffic disruption in the heavily traveled corridor.

The storm system, which pelted parts of the region with pea-size hail, apparently led to almost 90 vehicles - cars, trucks and at least one bus - skidding into each other in a series of chain-reaction crashes along an 11-mile stretch of I-95..

As of late last night, no fatalities had been reported. Maryland State Police spokesman Maj. Greg Shipley said officers at the scene were "amazed that no one was killed."

Shipley said the spate of accidents appears to have been the largest mass vehicle crash in Maryland history. In May last year, 73 vehicles were involved in a pile-up on Interstate 68 in Western Maryland that killed two people.

Given the number of vehicles involved yesterday, the number of serious injuries was surprisingly small.

Four patients were flown to Maryland Shock Trauma Center and at least 44 others were transported to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Franklin Square Hospital and Bel Air's Upper Chesapeake Medical Center.

Phillip Bovender, a spokesman for Shock Trauma, said two of the patients sent there were in guarded condition while awaiting surgery, and two others were treated and released. Another patent was being transferred there from another hospital, he said.

Spokesmen for the other hospitals said most of the injuries they treated were minor and that many patients had been released. Shipley said some patients might have been taken to other hospitals.

The traffic nightmare began about 4:30 p.m. in the southbound lanes near the White Marsh exit as a brief but intense storm struck northeastern Maryland, according to State Highway Administration spokeswoman Kellie Boulware.

The initial crash was followed by at least 10 others between White Marsh and the Riverside area of Harford County, according to Shipley of the state police. He said 86 vehicles were known to have been involved in the crashes.

"We believe that weather was a contributing factor in these crashes," Shipley said. He said that in one of the accidents, a southbound tractor-trailer crossed the median and blocked the northbound lanes.

Traffic backed up for miles on I-95 as all lanes were closed for several hours. Southbound lanes reopened about midnight., while northbound traffic was was not fully restored until about 11 p.m., Shipley said.

Traffic tie-ups spread to U.S. 40 and other roads as traffic was diverted from I-95, Boulware said. She said signs along I-95 were activated alerting motorists to the delays ahead as far north as Cecil County and as far south as Caton Avenue.

Curtis Tolliver, a Bel Air resident, entered northbound I-95 at White Marsh just after a storm lashed the area with what he estimated was more than an inch of hail.

"It was such a heavy, heavy downpour, and then with the kind of hail on top of it, you couldn't see anything. There was zero visibility during the storms," he said.

Tolliver, who made it home safely, said he counted about 90 crashed vehicles as he made his way north.

"There were cars piled on top of each other. There were tractor-trailers piled on top of cars," he said.

Richard Ehnts, 44, a roofing company supervisor from Glenside, Pa., was traveling with his wife and son to Fredericksburg, Va., to see their daughter play a field hockey game and had passed through the heaviest rain when he said visibility dropped to nearly nothing.

"The steam was coming off the road. It was worse than the rain," said Ehnts, who was interviewed at Franklin Square Hospital Center. "I slowed down and got smacked from behind. ... We had serious damage to the car. But fortunately, nothing happened to us."

Ehnts said he and his family were told by emergency workers to leave their car, and they accepted a ride to Franklin Square, thinking there would be transportation there. He said that when they found there wasn't, they took a cab to go to a hotel for the night.

Leslie Baker, a medic with the Joppa Magnolia Volunteer Fire Co., was one of three emergency workers who were the first to respond to a report of an accident on southbound I-95 near Raphel Road, near Gunpowder Falls State Park in Baltimore County.

She said she arrived to find several vehicles scattered across the highway, including a shuttle bus carrying about 30 passengers and two tractor-trailers, one that had rear-ended a passenger car and another that had jackknifed into the northbound lanes.

"Some people had gotten out of their cars, but a lot were still inside," she said. "I think they were in shock."

While she and her fellow workers were helping the victims, she said, "We heard the squealing from a tractor-trailer as it attempted to stop."

The truck "went up into the back half of a small vehicle," she said, setting off a chain reaction that involved another dozen cars.

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