SPRING MILLS, W. Va. (WJLA) - Two people are dead and more than a dozen others hospitalized, three critically, after a massive chain-reaction crash along Interstate 81 in Berkeley County West Virginia.
Around 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, a fast-moving snow squall entered the area. The springtime system dumped thick-wet snow on roadways, and whipped-up blustery winds, causing pure whiteout conditions.
"You couldn't see nothing, nothing at all, just total blindness," motorist Kenneth Besaw recalled. "All of a sudden, everybody started banging, crashing-up."
Besaw's Chevrolet pick-up truck was one of 49 vehicles involved in the morning melee between Exits 20 and 23. The Tomahawk, W. Va. resident wasn't hurt, but his pick-up fared some front-end damage.
"It sounded like crash, boom and bang. It sounded like the world was coming to an end, it just made an awful noise," Besaw added.
Five medical helicopters transported the most critical patients to trauma centers in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Ambulances took the less injured to nearby Berkeley Medical Center in Martinsburg, W. Va. where a triage disaster plan was put into place.
"When I first got here, there were two people trapped screaming, 'help me, get me out,'" motorist Tanya Spitler remarked. "I don't want to experience that ever again."
Of the 49 vehicles involved, 13 were tractor trailers. Police say about 15-20 vehicles were totaled, drawing tow trucks from multiple counties to assist in the clean-up. One of the most precarious situations, a tanker that flipped onto its side. Crews spent hours transferring the 1600 gallons of motor oil it was carrying into another truck, before turning it upright.
"We have multiple vehicles that were completely totaled in the accident," West Virginia State Police Trooper 1st Class Matthew Gillmore said. "I've never seen anything like this before."
Crash investigators tell ABC7, the two people killed were in separate vehicles. One was a driver from Maryland, the other a passenger from Canada.
"It's just a very traumatic and horrifying traffic collision. I guess that's the only way I can phrase it," Trooper 1st Class Gillmore added.
The southbound lanes of I-81 re-opened around 1 p.m. Wednesday, while all but one northbound lane remained closed until just before 5 p.m.
"I saw an 18-wheeler veer-off onto the side, hit the guardrail, and then multiple cars piled-up. The fact that I'm still alive, you know, I get to go home and see my family," motorist James King concluded.