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16-vehicle crash snarls I-81 traffic

Numerous wrecks reported after snow squall strikes area

Numerous wrecks reported after snow squall strikes area

January 08, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

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INWOOD, W.Va. -- An isolated snow squall that brought sudden whiteout conditions Thursday morning led to accidents in Berkeley County, including a 16-vehicle crash on southbound Interstate 81 that sent at least 15 people to local hospitals.

The I-81 pileup happened at 8:19 a.m. about a mile south of Exit 8 (Tabler Station Road) and involved at least six tractor-trailers, Berkeley County Sheriff's Department Lt. R.L. Gardner said.

There were at least eight other crashes in Berkeley County at the same time, including one on northbound I-81 south of Inwood, said Don Scheuch, chief of Berkeley County Ambulance 30.

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"It was a whiteout, and it iced up immediately," Scheuch said.

Those injured in the southbound pileup were taken to City Hospital in Martinsburg and to Winchester (Va.) Medical Center, Scheuch said. He said none of the injuries appeared to be life-threatening.

The southbound lanes of I-81 were closed at Exit 8 for more than seven hours, causing a backup that extended as far as Martinsburg, W.Va.

The southbound pileup apparently began when traffic slowed behind an accident near the 7-mile marker, Gardner said. Because of the slippery conditions, some vehicles were unable to stop, and a UPS truck and a pickup truck hauling a trailer collided, he said.

"That pretty much caused a chain reaction," Gardner said.

Scheuch said he was responding to the nearby accident on northbound I-81 when he heard the sound of tractor-trailers colliding.

"I knew it was gonna be bad 'cause (the sound) was just continuous," he said.

Drivers involved in the accident said the snow squall took them by surprise. The weather had been fine and the highway was clear until the few miles just before the crash, where the road become dusted with snow, said truck driver Tom Sojak, who was headed from New Jersey to Winchester for Tiger Transport.

Then, suddenly, everything went white, Sojak said.

Barely able to see out his windshield, Sojak suddenly saw that the tractor-trailer in front of him was stopped. He was driving slowly, but knew he would not have time to stop completely.

"I was trying to slam on my brakes, trying to do whatever I could to try to avoid it, but there was only so much I could do. There's only so much the truck can do," Sojak said. "It takes a lot of distance to stop that truck."

Sojak's windshield shattered as he slammed into the back of the truck in front of him, then his trailer crumpled as another truck struck him from behind.

"I was lucky to come out of it alive and well," said Sojak, whose only injury was a cut on his hand from the glass.

"The back end of the trailer probably could have decapitated my head for all I know," he said. "If I woulda been going faster, like 50 to 60 mph, I probably woulda been a goner."

Another truck driver, who asked to be identified only as Joseph K. because he feared repercussions from his trucking company, said he was able to stop when he saw traffic stopped ahead, but another truck struck his from behind, pushing him into two cars in front of him. Another tractor-trailer behind him swerved in an attempt to avoid a crash, but ended up striking his trailer in the side.

Joseph said if the traffic stopped in front of him would have had emergency flashers on, he might not have had to stop so suddenly.

The crash happened at almost the exact spot where an eight-vehicle collision, also during a snow squall, took the life of a Chambersburg, Pa., man last January.

Daniel G. Snyder, 57, died at the scene of the Jan. 15, 2008, accident involving his car, another passenger vehicle, a school bus, four tractor-trailers and a box truck.

Thirty minutes after that 2008 crash, Robert N. Bruffey, 67, of Gerrardstown, W.Va., died on nearby Apple Harvest Drive when his vehicle left the snow-covered road and crashed into a tree.

Gardner said the area's geography might be to blame for the similar crashes.

"I don't know if it's the flat lay of the ground, the way the wind tears through here, or not," he said.

Gardner said Thursday morning's crash involved more vehicles than any he had seen in recent years. Fortunately, none were carrying hazardous materials and the injuries were minor in comparison with the damage, he said.

Of the 16 vehicles involved, only two could be driven away under their own power, he said.

The rest gradually were towed away, though two of the trailers were so badly damaged they had to be unloaded first, Gardner said.

By about noon, all of the remaining vehicles had been moved to the left lane so the traffic immediately behind the crash could pass.

The lanes were reopened at 4:12 p.m., according to the West Virginia Department of Transportation.

West Virginia State Police, the West Virginia Public Service Commission, the Department of Transportation, South Berkeley Fire Department, the 167th Air National Guard and the Berkeley County Emergency Ambulance Authority also assisted with the crash.

Other Thursday morning crashes in Berkeley County included one at Leatherman Drive and Williamsport Pike, one at Naomi Lane and Opequon Way, and one at Cheshire Road and Middleway Pike, dispatchers said.

Fatal 2008 crash took place nearby

Thursday's chain-reaction crash occurred near the spot on southbound I-81 where an eight-vehicle collision, also during a snow squall, took the life of a Chambersburg, Pa. man, last January. Daniel G. Snyder, 57, died at the scene of the Jan. 15, 2008, accident involving his car, another passenger vehicle, a school bus, four tractor-trailers and a box truck.

Thirty minutes later, Robert N. Bruffey, 67, of Gerrardstown, W.Va., died on nearby Apple Harvest Drive when his vehicle left the snow-covered road and crashed into a tree.

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