3 killed in fiery crash on Pa. interstate
A tractor-trailer plowed into several vehicles that were slowing or stopped
The Morning Call
BERKS COUNTY, Pa. — A tractor-trailer crashed into slowing or halted traffic Monday on Interstate 78 in eastern Berks County, setting four vehicles on fire, damaging two others and killing three people, police said.
The accident happened at 1:15 p.m. in the eastbound lanes in Greenwich Township, about 1 mile east of Exit 40 for Route 737 to Kutztown and Krumsville. Some people who live nearby reported seeing plumes of black smoke and went to investigate, seeing the mangled heap of vehicles.
"A tractor-trailer came upon the slowed or stopped traffic, didn't stop in time and caused this chain-reaction crash, a rear-end crash," state Trooper David Beohm said about 4 p.m.
"We had seven vehicles involved. One was a tractor-trailer," he said. "Four of the vehicles started to burn. We have three fatalities at this point in two different vehicles."
The tractor-trailer was driven by Vincent Espinvera, 56, of Belleville, N.J., state police said late Monday. The dead had not been identified. Police said they could not even identify the kind of vehicles they were in.
Of the four vehicles that caught fire, one of them burned so badly that its license plate melted. Troopers at the scene indicated the deaths happened in the vehicles just in front of the tractor-trailer. Two of the dead were covered with tarps.
Beohm said Espinvera will probably be charged, but the offenses will be determined by the investigation.
Besides Espinvera, drivers of other vehicles who survived the crash were Frank Burns, 37, of Gettysburg; Austin Knerr, 33, of Catasauqua; Richard Hamilton, 61, of Amagansett, N.Y.; and John Huock, 64, of Pottsville.
The accident happened about 3 miles west of the Lehigh County line and backlogged traffic in both Berks and Lehigh counties. Vehicles stuck behind the crash extended for about a mile-and-a-half in the eastbound lanes before police could close traffic, police said. Several people got out of their vehicles and walked around.
Traffic was closed in both directions between Exits 40 and 45 late in the afternoon. State police eventually turned around the vehicles that had been trapped behind the accident scene to eliminate the eastbound backlog using the westbound lanes.
Once the eastbound backlog was eliminated, the westbound lanes reopened at 5:35 p.m. Both eastbound lanes were expected to be closed until late Monday as troopers completed their investigation, state police said.
Several people in the crash were taken to hospitals, according to police. Espinvera was taken to a hospital complaining of pain, Beohm said. The trucker was also going to undergo blood testing, which is mandatory in a fatal crash involving a commercial truck, Beohm said.
Three men who were in one of the vehicles involved in the crash, a work van for a plumbing and heating business, sat in a field about 4 p.m. They did not appear injured. They wondered when they were going to get home and hoped their cellphones wouldn't run out of juice. They did not want to talk about the crash.
The crash scene was two piles of wrecked vehicles.
The pile to the east had a van, a pickup truck and two or three other passenger vehicles. The pile to the west included a tractor-trailer hauling municipal waste and at least one passenger vehicle that had burst into flames on impact. That vehicle was almost completely underneath the rig.
The tractor-trailer jackknifed across the road — an indication the driver might have attempted to make a sudden stop. The trailer did not appear to be damaged.
State police said they knew of no construction activity in the area of the crash.
PennDOT issued a traffic alert about 9:15 a.m. Monday indicating there would be lane restrictions on I-78 east between Exits 40 and 45 for Route 863 to New Smithville.
State police from the Hamburg barracks are investigating the crash. Police in a helicopter took photos and video of the crash scene as part of the reconstruction.
Fire and medical emergency units from Berks and Lehigh counties responded to the accident. Emergency radio dispatches indicated that some emergency vehicles were directed to travel east in the westbound lanes to reach the site.
The crash happened in the same area of I-78 where Austin Tyler Zalik, a Naval Academy midshipman from Upper Macungie Township, died two years ago when his pickup truck dropped off an embankment and into the path of a tractor-trailer.
Police said Zalik, a Parkland High School graduate, had been sleeping in his pickup truck in the parking lot of a Greenwich gas station before just before the accident.
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