Crashes on I-95 put emergency crews' training to the test

Teams across region respond to largest accident in Md. history

October 18, 2004|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Looking at the cars and trucks -- some in ditches, some mangled and some crushed -- along Interstate 95 on Saturday, White Marsh Volunteer Fire Lt. Greg Reiter and his crew knew they weren't dealing with a normal highway pileup.

But when they heard Kingsville volunteers on the fire radio saying they were at the crash site, Reiter had a better sense of just how big a mess it was: "We couldn't see them at all. That's when we knew it wasn't just one crash; ... it was going to be something huge."

Authorities believe the string of 17 collisions involving 92 vehicles along an 11-mile stretch of Interstate 95 was the largest accident in Maryland history, and it prompted the most extensive emergency response since the deadly 1987 Amtrak crash in Chase.

"It tests us," said Lt. Richard Muth, director of Baltimore County's Office of Emergency Management. "This is the reason you train and practice mass casualty scenarios. It all boils down to how fast you set up command. ... The people out there very quickly realized the magnitude of it."

In all, 35 state troopers, more than 20 Baltimore County and Maryland Transportation Authority police officers, and nearly 100 paramedics, emergency medical technicians and firefighters from Baltimore, Harford and Cecil counties and Baltimore City were sent to help, authorities said.

Three state police Medevac helicopters and a fourth from the U.S. Park Police ferried some of the injured to hospitals. State highway personnel were dispatched to help reroute traffic. Crews from the Maryland Department of the Environment cleaned up fuel spills.

Even buses were called, from the Maryland Transit Administration, to pick up motorists who couldn't drive away from the crash as tow trucks began to retrieve the wreckage.

"It was like a bomb had gone off," said Capt. Grayson Corbin of the Kingsville Volunteer Fire Company, describing his view of a tractor-trailer on top of a Nissan Sentra against a backdrop of scores of other mangled vehicles. "It was like a war zone, that's the best way I can describe it."

While a paramedic called for a helicopter and advanced life-support ambulances and moved to the worst part of the accident, Corbin and eight of his station members walked car to car, asking who was hurt.

Despite the horrific toll on metal and plastic, the most seriously injured person they found was a 16-year-old girl with a broken arm, Corbin said. But with 20 others injured in their section of the interstate, and ambulances having trouble getting through the backed-up traffic, Corbin said they put as many as three patients in an ambulance.

It was a similar story up and down the highway, as rescuers worked to send the most seriously hurt to hospitals, police officers took down license information and witness statements, and commanders coordinated and choreographed the movements of helicopters and arriving rescuers.

As a fire engine driver at the scene of the train crash in Chase that killed 16 and injured at least 170, Corbin had seen worse than Saturday's wreckage. "With the train wreck, you had fire, people trapped, and so many people injured and already dead when we arrived, it was like a horror movie.

"There was more free-lancing back then -- everybody just sort of rushed in," Corbin said. "This was a more controlled scene. Everyone has a specific job to do."

Muth said incident commanders quickly established two separate radio frequencies for each of the largest accidents, so there wouldn't be confusion.

Although Muth said it will be days before officials finish evaluating how well procedures worked, the emergency response impressed many of the motorists involved.

Brian Edwards, a 40-year-old tractor-trailer driver from central Florida whose truck plowed into the Nissan Sentra, said, "For the magnitude of that accident, it was fantastic."

"They were there very quickly," said Jim Brady, a sales engineer from Forest Hill who was unhurt, though his Honda Accord was crunched front and back. "They did a great job."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.