At least 2 killed, 12 hurt in I-70 pileup in W. Md.

Snow could have been a factor in 42-vehicle chain reaction

January 20, 2009|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,tyeesha.dixon@baltsun.com

Jessica Granek and a group of friends hoped to fit in a ski trip yesterday before their spring semester starts at the University of Maryland this month. As the students headed downhill on snowy westbound Interstate 70 in Western Maryland, they saw an SUV turned sideways on the highway.

Cars began to slide out of control, Granek said. Tractor-trailers crashed into the cars.

"We're witnessing people just smashing into each other," recalled Granek, 21. "That was probably the most frightening thing, just seeing tractor-trailers out of control."

Two people were killed and at least a dozen seriously injured in the 42-vehicle pileup on I-70 over South Mountain in Washington County - one of a slew of accidents on slippery roads, police said.

The chain-reaction crash, which backed up traffic for at least five miles and caused officials to close the westbound lanes of the highway for several hours, occurred as snow was falling about 12:30 p.m. near the Frederick County border west of Myersville, according to Maryland State Police.

About a dozen people involved in the crash were taken to Washington County Hospital in Hagerstown with serious injuries, police said. Forty-five people were taken by bus to a Red Cross shelter in Hagerstown that was set up to assist those involved in the crash, police said. Most suffered "bumps and bruises" and were receiving first aid, said Julie Barr-Strasburg, executive director of the county's Red Cross chapter.

Police had not determined the cause of the crash but said "inclement weather may have been a contributing factor." Police were searching last night for a brown minivan with damage to the passenger side that might have been involved in the initial crash.

Police did not immediately release the identities of those killed in the crash, saying that their relatives had not been informed.

Police said 35 cars and seven tractor-trailers or box trucks were involved in the crash.

About 4 p.m., the State Highway Administration began diverting traffic at the Route 17 exit to westbound U.S. 40, police said. Westbound I-70 reopened about 11 p.m.

Granek and friends were on their way to what they had hoped would be a day of skiing at Whitetail Resort in Mercersburg, Pa. Granek said at one point during the accident, she saw a truck headed toward her, but it narrowly missed the Honda Civic in which she was a passenger. She and her friends got out of the car and ran into nearby woods, she said.

One of the most vivid images in Granek's memory was of an Acura that was facing the wrong direction. Atop it was an SUV, sideways in the road. A tractor-trailer had smashed into the SUV, and another tractor-trailer had smashed into the first one, she said.

"You never ever think you're going to be in that situation," said Granek. "You just prepare your mind for the absolute worst."

The Columbia resident spoke by telephone from a hotel in Hagerstown. Granek and her friends initially had been taken to the shelter, where they had stayed for six hours before the Red Cross offered to put them up.

She said she will never forget the scenes that replay in her mind of yesterday's wreckage. But she and her friends consider themselves fortunate.

"Our car didn't have a scratch on it," Granek said. "It's unbelievable, and we are so thankful."

Other weather-related accidents did not appear to be as severe. In Harford County, about 20 crashes had been reported by yesterday evening, said Sgt. Dave Betz, a Harford County sheriff's spokesman.

In one wreck, a car hit a guardrail about 1:30 p.m. and landed in a creek at Old Joppa and Jerusalem roads in the southern part of the county, Betz said. One person had to be rescued from his vehicle after the four-car accident, but he refused medical treatment, Betz said.

"Thankfully, right now we have no serious injuries, but our back roads are pretty bad," Betz said late yesterday afternoon. The National Weather Service had issued a winter weather advisory about 11 a.m. for much of north-central Maryland. Most of the area had about 1 1/2 inches of snow yesterday, but Hunt Valley in Baltimore County reported about 2 inches, said Jim Lee, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service's Baltimore-Washington forecast office in Sterling, Va.

The forecast for today includes clouds with a slight chance of snow showers in the afternoon and a wind chill in the upper teens, with winds of about 25 mph. Southern Maryland could see more precipitation, the meteorologist said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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