ACCOKEEK -- An audience lined a flat and straight stretch of rural highway in the middle of the night to watch what many here say is a recurring show of speed and thunderous noise. The drivers spun their wheels, throwing smoke and warming the tires for the contest to come.
At some point, the spectators stepped into the road. And, police later said, a Ford Crown Victoria not involved in the illegal street race drove into the blinding haze, straight into the crowd.
Eight people were killed and at least five injured in the accident, which occurred about 3 a.m. yesterday near an unlighted intersection on Route 210 - also known as Indian Head Highway - in southern Prince George's County.
Two victims, ages 37 and 44, were flown to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, and both were in serious condition, a hospital spokeswoman said. The ages of all the victims ranged from the 20s to the 60s, said police, who did not release the victims' names.
Police interviewed the Crown Victoria's driver, who was not hurt, and were looking for the drivers of two cars involved in the race. No one had been charged last night.
Roland Gaines, who lives near the highway, said his brother, William Gaines Sr., was killed. "They were just in the road looking to see who would win," said Roland Gaines, 51, "and the car just came plowing through the crowds."
Police said they could not estimate the crowd size.
The accident occurred about 11 miles southeast of Washington along a stretch of four-lane, divided highway with no traffic lights. Police said they have received reports in the past about motorcycle races along the road in the spring. But several neighbors said car races are frequent at all times of year and, when police come to break them up, the drivers and fans simply move down the road.
"It's a straight shot," said nearby resident Stephanie Proctor, 23. "People will just be driving along here and start racing each other."
Steve Swann, 36, said he came to watch the race about 2:30 a.m. yesterday. He said about 200 people were there and that some had poured out into the road after one of the races ended. Others, he said, stood on the shoulder and in the median. He said the race cars had just passed by the crowd when the Crown Victoria came "from out of nowhere."
"I saw the Crown Vic coming through the crowd, smashing everybody up," said Swann, who lives in Fort Washington. "Everybody was just trying to get away. I just kept going."
Crystal Gaines said she saw the sedan approaching after the street racers sped down the northbound lanes of Route 210. She pulled her daughter out of the way, but her father, William Gaines, hobbled by a broken leg, couldn't move fast enough.
"I hollered, `Daddy, Daddy!' There were bodies laying everywhere," said Gaines, who was uninjured. "He wasn't breathing; he wasn't moving. His body was in pieces."
Mark Courtney, 33, of St. Mary's County, was a racing fan, according to his brothers, who waited for most of the morning before identifying his body from a digital photo shown to them by police. He left three children, seven siblings and his parents.
"He liked going to the racetrack, watching races," said John Courtney.
Seven were pronounced dead at the scene, and an eighth person died later at a hospital. One of the spectators went through the windshield of the Crown Victoria and was found dead inside.
Police said two bystanders were transferred to area hospitals with injuries that were not believed to be life-threatening.
Route 210 was closed for most of the day as crash investigators worked and a Maryland State Police helicopter circled overhead. The white Crown Victoria had come to a rest on an embankment about 150 feet north of Pine Drive. Its hood was crumpled, and its doors were gone.
"Our investigators have remained on the scene of the accident, collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses," Prince George's County Police Chief Melvin C. High said in a statement. "The loss of so many lives is a tragedy, and we're moving urgently to determine the circumstances that led to this horrific accident."
The driver of the Crown Victoria was described as an adult male. Police did not say whether he had been tested for alcohol use and they were investigating whether the car's headlights were on. Police said they think that debris and smoke from the spinning tires as well as the dark road - there are no streetlights - made it difficult for the driver to see.
"It looks like a situation where he just did not see the victims," said Prince George's County Police spokesman Cpl. Clinton Copeland, adding that it was the worst accident he had seen in 14 years with the department. "The situation here boils down to individuals making a decision, making a bad decision."
Copeland said the department is asking other witnesses of the event to contact the Prince George's County Police Department. He described the accident as a "wake-up call" for people who use public roads for racing.
"This is a tragedy, no matter how you look at it. It's a tragedy all the way around," Copeland said. "We're not trying to put blame on anybody. We're just trying to find out what happened and to avoid it from happening again."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.