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Fog in Fancy Gap set the stage for the sprawling Easter Sunday wrecks on Interstate 77 that killed three people, injured 30 and involved 96 vehicles, Virginia State Police First Sgt. Mike Musser said. The victims were all from out of state.
In all, a cadre of state troopers from the Twin Counties and Wythe and Pulaski counties worked 18 accidents that snared 96 vehicles in the incident that began at approximately 1:15 p.m. on March 31.
Many drivers in the chain reaction accident failed to heed warnings from electronic message boards hanging over the interstate, cautioning them to slow down to account for the weather.
Fog reduced visibility at mile marker 6 in the southbound lanes, where the first accident occurred, to around 100 feet — much too thick for people to drive at 60 or 70 mph, Musser said.
“Since 5:47 a.m. Sunday, overhead message boards along I-77 had been advising motorists to slow their speed due to severe fog through the Fancy Gap Mountain area,” according to a Sunday news release from Corinne Geller, a state police spokeswoman. “The main cause of the crashes was motorists traveling too fast for conditions.”
“When visibility is lessened, you have to slow way down,” Musser said. “We commonly hear the theme, ‘It wasn’t my fault — that vehicle stopped in front of me.’
“You can’t make them understand they were driving too fast for conditions.”
Vehicles going 60 mph travel 90 feet in one second — the same amount of time people need to recognize a danger.
Inevitably, drivers get themselves into trouble, not considering it will take additional seconds to slow their vehicles, Musser said.
“My dad was on I-77 south through Fancy Gap only minutes before the accident and said that you could not see anything in front or behind you with the fog, and that people were passing him like it was nothing,” Monica Jennings McCoy told The Gazette.
One eyewitness at the scene was Lee Adams, who was passing through Carroll County on his way to a family vacation in Washington, D.C.
“We noticed cars crashing into one another and a gentleman running up the side of the southbound lane waving his arms for cars to slow down heading directly toward the wreck,” Adams told The Gazette via e-mail.
“I parked on the side of the northbound lane and began wave my shirt to try to keep more cars from crashing.”
Fortunately, many motorists were able to pull up before plowing into the wrecks in front of them, he said.
“It was a very sad scene and my prayers go out to all the [police and emergency personnel] and the families of those in the pile-up,” Adams said. “I’m glad I was able to help keep more cars from colliding into the pile-up.”
In all of Sunday’s confusion, it wasn’t immediately clear what led to the first wreck, Musser said. It may have been a tractor-trailer that overturned down the left side of the embankment.
“It’s very difficult to pinpoint one specific vehicle as the cause of a wreck this massive,” Musser said. “It could be as simple as somebody slamming on their brakes and everybody reacting to that and that vehicle continuing on and not stopping.”
Troopers kept turning in wreck reports on Monday.
A fire broke out among a cluster of wrecked vehicles that included at least one tractor-trailer and five or six vehicles, Musser said. Two of the fatalities happened among this knot of vehicles, but not as a result of the fire.
Virginia State Trooper Alan Vaughan investigated one part of the pileup that involved 10 vehicles where two of the fatalities occurred.
He identified one of the victims as Kathryn Worley, 71, from Iron Station, N.C., who was a passenger in a Silverado, driven by Danny Worley.
The Silverado was also occupied by two youths, Dakota Anderson and Logan Clark.
This vehicle had stopped when it was struck from behind by a tractor-trailer. The collision caused the Silverado to be pushed into a rock embankment.
Danny Worley was transported to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., with major injuries, and the two children went to Brenner Children’s Hospital.
Vaughan identified the second person killed as William Mark Sosebee, 33, of Kentucky, who was a passenger in a 2005 Ford Escape driven by Jarrod Smith of Kannapolis, N.C.
Sosebee died at the scene after a tractor-trailer penned the Escape to the rock embankment, the trooper said. Smith was taken to Baptist with major injuries.
Andrew Katbi, 24, of Delphos, Ohio, was driving a vehicle that rear-ended a tractor-trailer. He died at the scene.
One person who was unaccounted for and feared dead for a time was found alive, according to rescue workers on the scene.
VDOT shut down the interstate between milemarkers 1 and 8, setting up detours around the scene. Wreckage hampered response by fire departments. Tow trucks had to go in to remove other vehicles to make a path for firefighters.
Witnesses described seeing a stream of ambulances and tow trucks rush into the area shortly after the pileup.
Emergency responders pulled in mutual aid from all agencies in the region as well as a number from Surry County, N.C. Some of the fire, rescue, EMS and police on scene included agencies from Galax, Fries, Hillsville, Carroll County, Independence, Grayson County, Surry County and Franklin Community.
Several victims had to be cut out of their vehicles by fire and rescue workers.
Rescuers said the “walking wounded” were picked up along the interstate and triaged on the scene by EMTs and paramedics before being shipped off to hospitals or shelters.
Aircare helicopters flew victims out from a landing zone at the base of the foggy mountain, at Exit 1 on the Virginia-North Carolina border.
Injured victims were treated at Twin County Regional Hospital in Galax, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and Northern Hospital of Surry County in Mount Airy, N.C.
Serious injuries were sustained by about 30 people.
The Galax hospital received eight injured patients from the I-77 incident, according to information from hospital officials, and called in additional personnel.
Seven were treated and released. One was admitted and listed in good condition.
Carroll County school buses were brought in to transport the uninjured, and rescuers reported about 100 people waiting for transport at one exit.
People with cars stuck or wrecked on the interstate were taken to the VFW post in Hillsville, where the American Red Cross and an army of local volunteers fed them and helped them make travel arrangements or find lodging in local hotels.
Nina Rose, 20, and her mother were driving north, back home to Rochester, N.Y., when they encountered the pileup.
“With so much fog, we didn’t see much around it,” Rose said. “As we got farther up, we just saw a bunch of people standing on the median, just with their kids and families all together. There were cars smashed into other cars, and cars just underneath other semi-trucks.”
Rose said they stopped and got out to help people. Her mother, a trained emergency medical technician, checked on small children while she distracted them from the chaos around them.
“I was kind of shaken up at first, but after a while I was able to keep it cool and stay calm for everyone else around,” Rose said. “These two kids we were helping, we helped get them into an ambulance as their grandpa was being flown to a nearby hospital.”
Darrell Utt, 17, of Moore County, N.C., said he was on his way north to Huntington, W.Va., when he came across the wrecks.
“It was really foggy at first,” he said. “We probably saw over 50 tow trucks. We saw about five cars come down and three semi-trucks. One of them, it didn’t even look like a car, it looked like a chunk of metal.”
Utt said he was stuck in the northbound lanes for about three hours before traffic started moving again. It was, he said, the worst traffic situation he had ever witnessed. Through it, though, he said he was happy that other motorists were sympathetic to the backups.
“There was no road rage or anything. Everyone understood the severity of how bad this was before we even began to figure out what exactly happened,” he said.
Handling the Emergency
Carroll County Sheriff’s Office and Hillsville Police Department personnel provided traffic control on the Virginia side of the interstate, while North Carolina Highway Patrol helped out south of the accident area.
Virginia Department of Transportation personnel brought in sand to cover up the hundreds of gallons of fuel and oil that spilled onto the interstate due to the crashes, Musser said. Crews also set up light towers to illuminate the area, used “power brooms” to sweep the roadway and forklifts to pick up mangled vehicles and set them on rollback tow trucks.
The southbound lanes of I-77 were re-opened to traffic by 11:25 p.m. Sunday, Geller said. As of 7 p.m. Sunday, all northbound lanes of I-77 were open to through traffic.
Detours off the interstate clogged roads like U.S. 52, with southbound traffic extending back from the stoplight at Main Street and U.S. 58 in Hillsville to the northern town limits.
Traffic attempting to drive north on U.S. 52 in the mid-afternoon to avoid the crash scene found vehicles extending back across the North Carolina state line.
On I-77, southbound traffic backed up from Exit 8 at Fancy Gap for miles, past Exit 19 at Woodlawn.
Bad weather will always hamper traffic on Carroll County’s portion of Interstate 77, Musser said. “As long as the good Lord makes fogs, there’s going to be accidents.”
Major wrecks along that stretch of interstate near Fancy Gap are not uncommon. Since 1997, there have been at least six such pileups, all of them involving multiple crashes. In several cases, fog was listed as a contributing factor. The crashes on Sunday exacted the highest death toll, though. Two people perished in November 2010 and January 2000 after pileup crashes there.
Landmark News Service contributed to this article