Shaken motorists recount an afternoon of close calls

17 multivehicle collisions, but no fatalities on I-95

October 18, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Matt Tompkins and his two buddies thought the worst of the hail and rain had passed as he drove them south on Interstate 95 on their way to the movies. Suddenly, the Saturday afternoon sun emerged, reflecting off a steamy mist rising off the road and hampering visibility.

Then the mayhem began. Cars and trucks swerved and skidded out of control on the wet highway. Tompkins had no way of knowing it, but Maryland's worst multiple-vehicle accident was unfolding before his eyes.

The 17-year-old Belcamp youth said his Isuzu sport utility vehicle plowed into a box truck that swerved in front of him. The SUV's airbags deployed before it stopped in the median. The teens unbuckled their seat belts, then heard noises behind: car horns, crunching metal, breaking glass.

Tompkins, a senior at Aberdeen High School, yelled to his friends: "Put 'em back on. It's not over yet."

A Dodge Durango SUV smashed the Isuzu from behind, spraying window glass. Fortunately, the three teens escaped unscathed, save for the bruises where the seat belts snapped against their bodies.

Other survivors told similar tales yesterday of close calls that left them shaken but feeling lucky to be alive.

Col. Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins, the state police superintendent, said it was a miracle that no one died in the series of 17 multiple-vehicle collisions -- all about 4:30 p.m. along 11 miles of I-95 in Baltimore and Harford counties. The most serious injury was a broken leg, Hutchins said -- although police said a crash on another interstate in Howard County during the same storm claimed one life.

Fifty people were taken to hospitals, including four flown by helicopters to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, state police said. One man -- identified by state police as John Dudas -- remained in serious condition at Shock Trauma, while the others were treated and released, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Police said two of the crashes involved 16 vehicles each, and all but one of the tangles occurred in the southbound lanes. Nearly 150 law enforcement, emergency response, and state highway and environmental personnel from three counties and Baltimore City assisted in the rescue and cleanup efforts.

Preliminary findings in the investigation point to the bad weather as a factor in the crashes, state police said.

While bad for the motorists involved or delayed, the accidents were a boon for some businesses as people stopped at convenience stores seeking directions or detoured to motels.

The Super 8 in Joppa saw all 55 rooms booked by about 10 p.m. as unnerved travelers got off I-95 and found the Pulaski Highway refuge.

"There were people coming in one after another," said Amy Steiner, the motel's lobby attendant, noting that the staff had to direct the overflow to competitors. Yesterday morning, the motel had a traffic jam of sorts -- a long line of people hungering for their continental breakfasts and coffee.

"Everybody was hungry; they were grumpy," Steiner said. "They just wanted to get on their way out."

Yesterday, many involved in the highway mess -- from Maryland and as far away as Florida -- were still shaking off shock and minor injuries, and trying to assess the damage to their vehicles.

They found rides to the main place where tow trucks had hauled the wrecks during the night: Fullerton Auto Parts' 8-acre dirt-and-gravel lot in White Marsh.

Forty of the 60 towed vehicles had been brought there -- sedans, SUVs, pickup trucks, two tractor-trailers, and a passenger bus -- and people, including young Tompkins, came to retrieve personal effects and begin the insurance paperwork.

Tom Furnkas, 41, a Fullerton supervisor, was juggling phones and scrambling around the tow lot with another employee to collect insurance information from the grim-faced motorists who had begun arriving about 9:30 a.m. and were carrying salvaged goods, including clothes, tools and compact discs.

"We've never seen nothing like this, and I've been with the company 26 years," said Furnkas, who was among the first tow-truck operators to arrive at the accident scenes. "We're basically open today to see who's going to come in and get their stuff."

Furnkas guessed, based on the damage he has seen, that the accidents' toll will easily run into the "hundreds of thousands of dollars," and that many of the vehicles in his lot will be written off as a total loss.

The violence of the collisions was evident from the damage: shattered windows and windshields; mangled hoods, bumpers and doors; busted axles and flat tires.

Two-thirds of a Nissan Sentra sat there, nearly flattened from behind by a white tractor-trailer that had been hauling juices from New Jersey to Florida.

The condition of the Sentra's driver could not be learned last night. The trucker whose rig hit it -- Brian Edwards, 40, of Bartow, Fla. -- came to Fullerton to pick up his personal effects, and said he was planning to catch a bus to his company's terminal in Lakewood, N.J.

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