Big rig chase on I-81 spanned 3 states, ended in Franklin County Pa.

December 20, 2010|By DON AINES |
  • Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Mike Dick investigates scene of tractor trailer accident on I-81 median at PA Rt. 16.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — A Mississippi man was driving a tractor-trailer that led police on a three-state chase that ended Monday morning with the big rig stuck in the median of Interstate 81 near Greencastle, Pa., authorities said.

Thomas L. McNeel, 42, of Pontotoc, Miss., was identified as the driver of the tractor-trailer, which was hauling furniture, according to Maryland State Police.

McNeel was taken to Franklin County (Pa.) Jail following his arraignment before Magisterial District Judge Duane Cunningham on 42 charges, including fleeing and attempting to elude police, possession of narcotics, driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance, reckless endangerment, resisting arrest and several traffic violations.

Cunningham set McNeel's bail at $250,000.

"Bridgman Trucking" and "Pontotoc, MS" were on the side of the tractor-trailer's purple cab. No one answered two phone calls Monday afternoon to a number for Bridgman Trucking that was supplied by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

The incident began at 8:22 a.m. when Berkeley County, W.Va., 911 received a report of a reckless driver in a tractor-trailer at the 1 1/2 mile marker north of the Virginia border, according to a dispatcher in West Virginia.

It ended after the truck got hung up on a culvert in the median of I-81 near Greencastle, where the driver was taken into custody, Washington County Sheriff Douglas Mullendore said.

"No one got hurt, but it could have been a very disastrous situation," Mullendore said.

If the tractor-trailer had succeeded in getting into the southbound lanes heading north, it could have been deadly, he said.

"There's no question that had he made it into the southbound lane, he would have killed people," Mullendore said.

A knoll in the median near Greencastle's Exit 5 would have prevented southbound drivers from seeing the tractor-trailer in time to avoid it, he said.

The tractor-trailer caused several accidents on I-81 in West Virginia and Maryland, and swerved toward police cars and officers on foot, officials said.  

No injuries were reported in West Virginia, Maryland or Pennsylvania, authorities in those states said.

"It was an extremely scary and dangerous situation. I don't know how else to describe it," said Sgt. Dan Steerman, a 15-year veteran with the Berkeley County Sheriff's Department.

Steerman said he pulled his cruiser alongside the right shoulder of northbound I-81 near the Spring Mills exit to wait for the northbound tractor-trailer.

"He swerved off the road and tried to hit my cruiser. He missed me," Steerman said.

Not knowing whether the driver had a medical problem, Steerman said he called for emergency medical services and firefighters to stand by and to notify Washington County authorities of the situation.

Steerman said the big rig didn't hit any vehicles in West Virginia, but ran several off the road, causing at least three accidents. One of those accidents was near the exit for City Hospital and another was south of the Spring Mills exit, he said.

Steerman and two other officers with the Berkeley County Sheriff's Department pursued the tractor-trailer in three cruisers, Steerman said.

There was no way for the cruisers to stop it, so Steerman said he turned on his lights and sirens to warn drivers ahead of the coming truck. Many drivers pulled over to the shoulder, he said.

Running on rims'

Once in Maryland, several Maryland state troopers and deputies with the Washington County Sheriff's Office picked up the pursuit, according to a state police news release.

Traffic near the Interstate 70 interchange slowed down for a Washington County sheriff's officer who was preparing to deploy "stop sticks" in the northbound lanes, Mullendore said.

The tractor-trailer did not slow down for the traffic backup and instead continued north, plowing through four vehicles, Mullendore said.

The rig hit the stop sticks and one front tire immediately started to deflate, and the other tire blew south of U.S. 40, on the western edge of Hagerstown, and the truck slowed to around 30 mph, Mullendore said.

Stop sticks are accordion-folded pieces of fiberglass that have hollow steel coils on them, a Washington County Sheriff's Office official said. As vehicles go over them, holes are poked in the tires so they slowly deflate.

"He was running on rims" on the front portion of the cab, Mullendore said.

A dozen or more emergency vehicles could be seen going north on I-81 north of Hagerstown.

Mullendore said he joined the pursuit at U.S. 40.

"At that point, he was coming northbound and any cruiser that tried to get close to him he would swerve dramatically," Mullendore said.

While traveling north on I-81 through Washington County, the tractor-trailer swerved toward troopers and deputies on foot as well as marked police cars, state police said.

The tractor-trailer clipped the side-view mirror off of a Washington County Sheriff's vehicle that was stopped on the right shoulder of I-81 south of the Pennsylvania state line, according to Mullendore and Maryland State Police.

Driver ‘incoherent'

Twice, the tractor-trailer tried to cross the median into southbound lanes, Mullendore said.

The first attempt was made south of Greencastle, but the median was too steep and the big rig continued north, he said.

Then the tractor-trailer got on the exit ramp for Greencastle, Mullendore said.

That exit, Exit 5, is for Pa. 16.

At the last minute, the tractor-trailer turned left, making almost a 90-degree turn across both northbound lanes and into the median, Mullendore said.

It only stopped because a big culvert was there, and the cab hit an embankment before it could get into the southbound lanes, he said.

With both front tires deflated, the tractor trailer continued north at speeds of 35 mph to 45 mph, state police said.

The driver was eventually taken into custody at 9:09 a.m., according to Washington County Emergency Services.

Pennsylvania State Police said they also deployed stop sticks when the rig came into that state. After the truck wrecked in the median, McNeel refused to come out of the vehicle, police said.

The window of the cab was smashed and a trooper used a Taser on him, police said. The trucker tried to get into the sleeper compartment, and a police dog was sent in after him, at which time McNeel was taken into custody, police said.

McNeel was "generally incoherent" and admitted to using methamphetamine, police said.

Suspected narcotics and paraphernalia were also found on McNeel, police said.

Staff writer Julie E. Greene contributed to this story.

Timeline of police pursuit

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