At least 25 injured in 100-car Pa. highway pileup
By the time the road reopened more than seven hours after the first fender-bender, 55 cars had been towed from the scene
Chris Palmer and Mari A. Schaefer
The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA — Dozens of cars and trucks skidded out of control and into each other on an ice-slickened Pennsylvania Turnpike early Friday, injuring at least 25 people, stranding hundreds of motorists, and paralyzing a critical roadway for much of the day.
The pileup, between the Willow Grove and Bensalem exits, wasn't just one crash, but a series that left in its wake a wreckage scene fit for Hollywood: Several tractor-trailers jackknifed across the eastbound lanes, and battered cars idled amid mounds of shrapnel.
It was an exclamation point on a winter that has punished the region with heavy snow, an ice storm, and days of power outages.
None of the crash-related injuries appeared to be life-threatening, but the damage was unforgettable. By the time the road reopened around 4 p.m. - more than seven hours after the first fender-bender - 55 cars had been towed from the scene.
"I don't recall too many accidents where you had this number of vehicles in a chain-reaction-type accident," said Bill Capone, chief of communications for the Turnpike Commission.
State police said it could be days before investigators pinpoint the cause.
But many of the affected motorists said it was no secret: Slick conditions, they said, left the road feeling more like a hockey rink than a highway.
"The whole road was nothing but ice," said Irina Appelton, 52, of Glenside, whose black Jeep pinballed into cars in front of her and behind her, shattering her taillights and smashing her front bumper.
Picking fragments of her car out of her shoes, she added: "It's just really, really bad."
Friday was supposed to be a quiet dig-out day, the calm after the storm.
Thursday's nor'easter dumped 11.5 inches of snow in Philadelphia and as much as 20 inches on parts of Chester County. Many schools and offices remained closed, and the roads, at least early, weren't crowded.
Crews had spent nearly two days salting and plowing the turnpike, and around 6 a.m. Friday, officials there lifted what had been speed restrictions.
"Whenever we lift these, we do so with the caution to motorists that there are still going to be slick areas," Turnpike Commission spokesman Carl DeFebo said.
The pileups started with two separate accidents around 8:30 a.m. about two miles apart, in the eastbound lanes east of Willow Grove. The first was at Milepost 350, the second about two miles west, officials said.
Each involved about 20 to 25 cars, trucks, and tractor-trailers.
As drivers stopped to avoid crashing into the wreckage, there were as many as 12 pockets of additional accidents, mostly fender-benders, DeFebo said.
"It felt as though these tractor-trailers were going to squeeze me in the middle," Marge Brady, 65, of Bensalem, said, recounting the vehicles spinning around her. "I thought I was going to die."
Turnpike officials closed the eastbound lanes by 9 a.m., diverting traffic off the Willow Grove exit, Capone said. Around 10:30 a.m., he added, the westbound lanes were shut down as well to allow emergency responders to access the road.
Brady suffered neck and back injuries when her silver Hyundai Elantra was sandwiched between two red trucks and a tractor-trailer.
She was among two dozen people taken to hospitals in Abington, Langhorne, and Doylestown. She was treated at Abington Memorial Hospital and released by midafternoon. Officials there described five of the injuries as traumas, but said none was life-threatening.
Seven victims were taken to St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne, said Kathleen Smith, a spokeswoman. By 3 p.m., four had been treated and released, and three were still being evaluated.
Doylestown Hospital received three patients, all with minor injuries, spokesman Ron Watson said.
Meanwhile, hundreds of cars sat for hours as the wreckage was cleared, many taking advantage of Good Samaritans who threw packages of water and food over fences lining the highway.
Tom Connell, 53, of Hatboro, was at the center of the second accident. A few hundred yards behind a tractor-trailer collision, he was caught in the middle of a multicar fender-bender that occurred in the sudden backlash of the initial accident.
Connell was waiting with his car Friday afternoon. "It's scary stuff," Connell said, shaking his head. "It's just one split-second."
Christopher Hellwarth, 49, was headed to work from his Upper Gwynedd home to Burlington when the cars in front of him began bouncing into the center barrier, hitting other vehicles, sliding across three lanes of traffic, and then hitting other cars, Hellwarth said.
"Two cars were within inches of hitting me," Hellwarth said from his car hours later.
When Hellwarth's car did come to a halt, he said, he watched in the rearview mirror as uncontrolled cars slid in the direction of his Honda Pilot. A tractor-trailer ended up about three feet from his side door.
"I was just holding on because stuff behind me was going on all over the place," Hellwarth said.
Somehow he came through unscathed.
"I should have played the lottery today," he joked.