- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003

FINZEL, Md. — Officials reopened a 17-mile stretch of Interstate 68 yesterday afternoon after clearing the wreckage of nearly 90 vehicles involved in a series of pileups that killed two persons and injured dozens.

Wreckers and highway workers removed vehicles, broken glass, bits of plastic and absorbent material scattered to soak up spilled fuel. Strong winds still carried the smell of gasoline as far as a half-mile from the scene.

After the pileups began along a fog-shrouded mountain ridge Friday afternoon, a jumble of cars, trucks and tractor-trailers jammed the roadway and shoulders.

“The magnitude of vehicles, and the damage and devastation was mind-boggling,” said Cpl. Rob Moroney, a Maryland State Police spokesman.

One of the victims, Jason Howell, 26, of Ohio, was killed after leaving his vehicle, state police said. Police said the other victim, Regina Daudet, 66, of Centreville, Va., was a passenger in a car. At least 60 persons were injured.

State Police Maj. Vernon Herron said the accidents started when a truck hit a van and the van overturned in the westbound lanes, starting a series of chain reactions.

In the eastbound lanes, someone apparently slowed down to watch what was happening and was struck, starting another chain reaction, Maj. Herron said.

“This is absolutely the worst accident scene I’ve seen in my 27 years as a Maryland state trooper,” Maj. Herron said.

Gregory Frank, 45, a real estate agent from Woodbridge, Va., was traveling to a wedding in Pittsburgh in a minivan with his wife, Michelle, and two children.

He said they were surrounded by vehicles that had stopped or slowed near the accident scene. Next to him, as they were stopped, was a red car.

Behind them, Mr. Frank said he heard a series of crashes coming toward them.

“I told the kids, ‘Hunker down,’” Mr. Frank said.

The sound of the collisions approached, then the red car was struck from behind and crushed. “I said, ‘Oh my God.’ One minute it was there, then — whoomp — that car was just gone,” Mr. Frank said.

Maj. Herron said the passenger in that car was Miss Daudet.

Officials said traffic could be a problem during the Memorial Day weekend, and they urged travelers to use caution driving on I-68.

Yesterday morning, most of the traffic heading west from the Washington-Baltimore area was taking Interstate 70 to the Pennsylvania turnpike, a parallel route farther north. By yesterday afternoon, traffic was moving freely in both directions along I-68.

The fog near Big Savage Mountain, an Appalachian ridge in Garrett County where the accidents occurred, was expected to lift yesterday afternoon, replaced by cloudy weather and a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms, said Dave Sisk, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh.

Sacred Heart and Memorial hospitals in Cumberland treated about 60 people, said Kathy Rogers, a spokeswoman for Western Maryland Health Systems.

Steven Conely, 25, of Denora, Pa., was in critical condition yesterday at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, Maj. Herron said.

Six persons were admitted to the Cumberland hospitals, and the rest were treated and released, said Roxie Convery, a nursing supervisor at the Memorial hospital.

Visibility was near zero atop Big Savage Mountain, near the accidents Friday, county Emergency Director Brad Frantz said.

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