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HILLSVILLE — About 23 people caught in the massive Easter Sunday wreck on Interstate 77 used the Grover King VFW Post 1115 as a way station on their journey to get their lives back on track.
Many travelers on the interstate near Fancy Gap had their Easter plans disrupted after the dense fog set in.
While these adults and children, along with three dogs, were caught up in the crashes, they were also bystanders for much of the day.
They boarded a Carroll County school bus to make their way up to the Hillsville VFW, where the Red Cross set up a shelter.
The post is the designated place to deal with incidents that snarl interstate traffic, whether it becomes snow-, fog- and accident-bound.
“I imagine they chose this due to its close proximity to the interstate and its size,” said Glen Sage of the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service working with the Red Cross.
One woman had an ice pack secured to her knee by a bandage, and several limped or just looked bleary eyed as they stepped off the bus.
Parents tended to their children.
Others worried about what to do with their dogs and kept them on a short leash during their time at the VFW.
They wondered when the call would come that their vehicle had been freed and taken to a garage and when their vehicles would be drivable.
They tried to find a spot where they could call out on their cell phones to reach loved ones, but with all the traffic clogging through roads like U.S. 52 in town, the telephone networks often could not handle any more volume.
Locals, including police chaplains, moved among the victims — talking to them, providing them food, bringing around phone books and providing any other assistance needed.
The volunteers ranged from church members to VFW members, wanting to do anything they could to help.
Most victims were clearly still processing the events.
“I’ll probably start flying,” Stormie Baylor of Jacksonville, Fla., joked about the experience. “It was my first time out of Florida, too.”
She had gone with her boyfriend to Morgantown, W.Va., to meet his family.
They found themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time as they tried to get back to Florida through Fancy Gap.
The thick fog became an obstacle for the drivers.
“Nobody could see anything. People slammed on their brakes ....”
A vehicle that couldn’t stop in time nicked the couple’s car, and theirs ran into the back of one ahead of them.
People abandoned their cars and ran up the embankment in case other traffic couldn’t get stopped and cause more collisions.
Baylor watched three tractor-trailers come into view in perhaps one of the scariest moments of a difficult day — two avoided other vehicles but the third “just came plowing through.”
It finally came to a halt when it got wedged in by other vehicles.
The rig hit a car that a woman was trying to get out of. Baylor believes the woman lay motionless on the ground after that.
After arriving at the VFW, Baylor settled in to wait on word that she could reclaim to her vehicle.
“It’s a long waiting game,” she said.
Many people throughout the day told similar stories, whether they were on their way to Chicago or coming from Carroll County, Ga., or making their way back to Proctorville, Ohio, just north of Huntington, W.Va.
Lester’s Towing pulled the family from Georgia off the interstate into the Cana garage — they didn’t want to speak on the record as they tried to get snacks out of a vending machine for their children and cared for their friendly pit bull.
A Carroll school bus also let off stranded people at Love’s truck stop, where an older couple planned to call their daughter, who lives in Hickory, N.C., to come pick them up, via a trip through Mount Airy.
Many expressed horror at the fire that engulfed vehicles in the wreck or talked about how long the accident field was.
As they waited, several took photos to share of the fog, or their own damaged vehicles or the sprawling accident scene.
From the community, volunteers flocked to the VFW to see if they could help — possibly three times as many people from emergency agencies or the community showed up to lend a hand.
Red Cross, Carroll County and emergency officials made plans to care for 100 of the travelers, if needed, Sage said.
Sage stayed in contact with other radio operators staged at Exit 1 and Exit 8 to gather information, so the Red Cross shelter could be properly prepared.
Community members brought in truckloads of food and set it out on folding tables, while others stayed busy by making sandwiches in the kitchen.
Several volunteers went to Pulaski County to pick up cots from the Blue Ridge Boy Scout Council.
Sarah Melton of Project Linus went to the VFW to hand out handmade blankets to those stranded there. She said one child was so appreciative that he drew her a picture to repay her kindness.
Members of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Department, the Carroll Fire and Rescue, and Carroll Social Services coordinated with Roger Hudson, manager of disaster services for the American Red Cross.
By the time victims left the wreck site, they had already been triaged, so Sage said the shelter would make sure they got fed and had a place to stay.
Those who were seriously injured were taken to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., Northern Hospital in Mount Airy, N.C., or to Twin County Regional Hospital in Galax.
The help provided by the community was “outstanding,” Hudson said. He estimated that, after the 23 people arrived at about 6:30 p.m. or so, 90 percent of them had left the shelter by 8:30.
By 9:30, the shelter was down to one family, and relief workers were trying to arrange for a rental car for them.
“We were just glad we could support them with a place to stay for so many hours, in such a bad time for them,” Hudson said.