FINZEL — Eastern Garrett Volunteer Fire Company Chief Tim Clark had eased into his favorite chair Sunday afternoon to watch his Pittsburgh Steelers play the Cleveland Browns when the call came in.
Dozens of vehicles had crashed in a series of chain-reaction accidents on fog-shrouded Big Savage Mountain in the westbound lanes of Interstate 68.
“It’s not our first rodeo in this type of incident,” Clark, a volunteer for the past 33 years, including the last 15 as chief, said Monday.
Clark and two fellow firefighters — assistant chief Justin Clark, Tim’s son, and Sgt. Steve Frost — responded to the scene in the department’s rescue truck minutes after the 12:36 p.m. alert.
“Normally when we approach I-68 from the bridge near the salt dome you can usually see both directions, but yesterday you couldn’t see a thing,” Tim Clark said.
Tim Clark said the first responders began checking for people trapped in vehicles and for severity of injuries to prioritize patients.
“Frostburg and Shaft are automatically alerted for accidents on the interstate that we are sent to, but they were stuck in the pileup,” he said. “They got there in a few minutes and also started checking for victims."
Maryland State Police reported that 58 vehicles were involved in 29 separate crashes. Ten people were taken to the Western Regional Medical Center for treatment of minor injuries.
Justin Clark said two tractor-trailers and about 20 passenger vehicles were involved in what he called the main crash. He estimated the crash covered a highway length of more than 500 yards.
The pileup also included private vehicles occupied by some new volunteers of the Bittinger and Grantsville fire departments. They were not injured, Tim Clark said, adding they were returning to Garrett County from a firefighter training class in Cresaptown.
“They sprang into action,” he said.
‘I hit the brakes’
In addition to the dozens of people involved in Sunday’s accident, still others were able to drive away unscathed.
Finzel resident Chris Grove said he and his wife, Leah, were driving westbound and “could only see about one car length in front of us.”
“I was behind an SUV and could just see the tail lights before it went out of sight. And then suddenly it was there,” he said. “I hit the brakes and started to slide a little as the SUV was sliding and swerving.”
Grove said he turned the steering wheel to the right toward the guardrail, swerved around the SUV and onto the shoulder, then encountered a gray SUV stopped in that lane.
“I thought we were going to hit them, but our truck has the anti-skid and ABS system and that is what prevented us from crashing into into the gray SUV. We stopped about two feet from it,” Grove said.
After avoiding the collisions, a vehicle approached from the rear.
“The vehicle behind us also had to swerve into the right shoulder to avoid hitting the car in the center lane and narrowly missed us,” he said. “We thought for sure were were going to hear a crash behind us as the fog was so heavy.”
Most were holiday travelers
Charon Clark responded to the scene as Eastern Garrett’s chief officer in emergency medical services.
“We took several victims back to our station for food and heat. It seemed like most of the victims were holiday travelers and not local folks,” she said.
“We had at least 20 victims at the station waiting to be interviewed by police and needing assistance in various ways and they could not have been more grateful for our help,” Justin Clark said.
Charon Clark said the accident forced some of those involved to stay the night in local hotels.
“Some had service dogs and a couple had cats. We had people from Michigan, South Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia, some hunters trying to get back to Oxford, Pennsylvania, and a couple college students trying to get back to Morgantown,” said Charon Clark, who is employed full time as a dispatcher with the Frostburg Police Department.
Chief Tim Clark said Sunday’s accident was not as bad as the deadly May 23, 2003, crash that involved more than 80 vehicles.
He said every time his company receives a call for a crash on the interstate involving multiple vehicles, he’s reminded of that accident, which killed two people and injured about 100.
“This incident Sunday was not as severe as 2003, no lives were lost,” he said.
Tim, Charon and Justin Clark all praised the efforts of the first responders who helped at Sunday’s accident.
“If not for our mutual aid companies, it would not have gone as well as it did,” Justin Clark said. “Everybody worked as a team.”
Charon Clark said “things went pretty smoothly,” noting that no first-responders were injured Sunday throughout the I-68 response.