- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

FINZEL, Md. (AP) — About 90 cars driving in heavy fog crashed in a series of accidents on a Western Maryland interstate yesterday, killing at least two persons and injuring more than 60, authorities said.

The two fatalities occurred in Garrett County, said county Emergency Director Brad Frantz.

The accidents forced the closure of a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 68 between LaVale in Allegany County and Grantsville in Garrett County. Traffic backups extended for several miles to the east and west.

Visibility was near zero in the Big Savage mountain range where the accidents occurred, Mr. Frantz said. State police said no roads were closed before the first collision.

The initial crash was reported about 1:45 p.m.

“We don’t know what truly caused it, but it’s probably the fog,” said Valerie Edgar, a State Highway Administration (SHA) spokeswoman.

Gary Warn, manager of the Hen House, a restaurant in Finzel overlooking that stretch of highway, said he couldn’t even see the road. “If you look out the door right now, it’s like a whiteout,” he said.

The Grantsville Holiday Inn filled up quickly with stranded motorists.

“I have a lobby full of people,” Crystal Beal, a front desk clerk at the 104-room hotel, said.

WHAG-TV news video showed a jumble of damaged cars, trucks and tractor-trailers jamming the roadway and shoulders, facing every which way. Some had crushed hoods, fenders and rear ends. Firefighters and emergency workers were visible through the dense fog.

The section of I-68 involved in the crashes does not have fog lights, Miss Edgar said.

By early evening, Maryland State Police investigators were still trying to get to the scene, said David Buck, an SHA spokesman.

“We’re estimating that it will stay closed until early tomorrow morning,” he said. “Nothing can be moved until they get there.”

Sacred Heart and Memorial hospitals in Cumberland treated about 64 persons, said Kathy Rogers, a spokeswoman for Western Maryland Health Systems, which operates the hospitals.

One person was taken to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, she said. Three others were admitted and the rest were treated and released from the two hospitals, Miss Rogers said.

Officials were setting up a temporary shelter at the Eastern Garrett County Fire Department, Miss Rogers said. The Red Cross was offering overnight assistance to stranded people from outside the area, she said.

The National Weather Service issued a fog advisory for the area at 3:12 p.m., said Josh Korotky, a science and operations officer with the Weather Service in Pittsburgh.

“Before that, there were no observations to indicate the severity of the fog,” he said.

Weather Service workers often check road cameras, but there aren’t any in that area, Mr. Korotky said.

This area — where elevations range from 2,800 feet to 3,000 feet above sea level — is prone to fog, he said. Sometimes in mountainous the fog can be a local phenomenon and difficult to predict, he said.

“If you have low clouds and you drive into the mountains, it’s like driving into the clouds,” Mr. Korotky said. “That’s what fog is.”

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