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HILLSVILLE — Ramesh Sangheni said he and his family are lucky.
The local hotel owner was driving south on Interstate 77 on Easter Sunday with his family when they were involved in a massive chain-reaction pileup of 97 vehicles that closed the highway for hours.
His car was damaged but no one was hurt.
“I thought I was going to die,” he said on Monday.
Dense fog near Fancy Gap created the hazardous conditions for the March 31 wreck that killed three people and sent dozens more to hospitals, making it one of the deadliest wrecks to happen along that corridor known for its dangerous conditions during heavy fog or wind.
“You couldn’t see anybody,” Sangheni said. “All the sudden it’s ‘boom, boom’ like a bomb blast.”
Sangheni, who owns several hotels in the area, said the fog was so thick he estimated visibility was just 5 feet. He left his Quality Inn in Hillsville at about 1 p.m. to go to his home in Wilkesboro, N.C., and was involved in the wreck about 30 minutes later.
The crashes occurred about 1:15 p.m. in the southbound lanes of I-77 at the base of Fancy Gap Mountain, near mile marker 6 in Carroll County. Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said troopers counted six to eight vehicles at the “epicenter” of the wreckage, where several caught fire.
Debris from the wreckage could still be seen along the stretch of highway Monday. Grass on the sides of southbound I-77 was littered with items, and black skid marks scarred the road.
“Trucks don’t stop — that’s the problem. Trucks just fly,” said C.J. Patel, a friend of Sangheni’s who owns the Comfort Inn in Hillsville.
Patel said his hotel had guests who were involved in the wreck or stuck in the traffic it created.
Many hotels off Exit 14 in Hillsville, eight miles north of the crash epicenter, reported taking in guests involved in the crash.
The Red Cross also set up a shelter at the VFW hall in Hillsville, which served 28 people.
Amy Whittaker, regional public affairs director for the American Red Cross, said that while a major wreck like this is not a typical disaster for the agency, it has helped during severe car crashes in the area before.
“Over the years it’s been such a situation there. I know the volunteers for that chapter, and the employees there have responded many times over the years doing pretty much the same thing,” Whittaker said.
Preventing Another Disaster
On good days, the view from Interstate 77 on Fancy Gap Mountain offers sweeping vistas of the countryside below. On bad days — March 31 was one of them — fog reduces visibility from miles to feet, transforming a scenic drive into a potential traffic nightmare.
Highway officials have known for years of the hazards that exist on the stretch of I-77 in Carroll County where the mountains of Virginia give way to the flat land of North Carolina.
Since 1997, there have been at least six major pileups near Fancy Gap, all of them involving multiple crashes. In several cases, fog was listed as a contributing factor. Sunday’s crash, though, marks the highest death toll. Two people died in November 2010 and January 2000 after pileup crashes.
The Virginia Department of Transportation has spent about $5 million just in the past two years on higher-visibility signs, better highway markings and other measures intended to improve safety on a 12-mile stretch of interstate known for its chain-reaction pileups.
Some critics say transportation officials should be working faster on more substantive projects, such as a system that would reduce speed limits during times of dense fog. “Something like that is long overdue, and I’m a little bothered by the fact that VDOT has not moved forward on this,” said Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin County), whose district includes part of Carroll. “We can’t control the weather, but we can control the traffic.”
The project has moved slowly in part because state funding has not been available, highway officials said. Until it is, VDOT plans to install fiber-optic lines and other infrastructure for the system, said Tim Martin, regional traffic operations manager at the agency’s Salem office. “We’re definitely not going to rule out anything that we think is going to make the road safer,” Martin said.
On Afton Mountain, which has also seen its share of chain-reaction pileups, VDOT has embedded fog lights in the pavement of Interstate 64 help motorists stay on the road. The light system was first installed in the 1970s and has been upgraded several times.
No such system exists on Fancy Gap Mountain because there are no nearby power lines to tap into, according to VDOT spokesman Jason Bond.
The state has enlisted the help of researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to find better ways to address the problem on I-77.
“Fog is by far the worst driving condition, because it’s such a pervasive limiter of visibility,” said Ronald Gibbons, director of the institute’s Center for Infrastructure Based Safety Systems.
By simulating foggy conditions on the institute’s so-called Smart Road, researchers have been testing the effectiveness of signs and other equipment to be used on future I-77 improvements.
A big part of the challenge, VDOT officials said, is capturing the attention of the many out-of-state drivers who use the interstate with no inkling of the dangers they might be approaching.
Fog on the mountain is part of the local folklore, and most people who live in the area are aware of the dangers, said Del. Anne Crockett-Stark (R-Wytheville), whose district includes Carroll County.
For all the laws that can be passed, she said, the personal responsibility of motorists must also change.
According to VDOT, flashing digital signs were activated at 5:45 a.m. the day of the crashes, alerting drivers on I-77 to foggy conditions. The first wreck in the southbound lanes happened about 1:15 p.m.
“We had people driving 75 and 80 mph down that mountain, when the signs were there,” Crockett-Stark said. “When you don’t pay attention to the road signs, I don’t know how you stop people from being people.”