A chain-reaction pileup involving 75 vehicles on a snowy stretch of Interstate 95 west of Bangor sent 17 people to the hospital Wednesday, including two in serious condition. Authorities said the jumbled mess of damaged vehicles and accident debris on a three-mile section of the northbound lanes was the worst they had seen in 15 years.

“I’m absolutely shocked that we don’t have fatalities,” Lt. Sean Hashey, commander of Maine State Police Troop E Barracks, said at a news conference in Bangor. “It’s very shocking. It really had a significant impact on a lot of people.

“If Hollywood wanted to create a scene, I don’t think they could have created the amount of carnage that was out there today.”

The string of accidents, which included a school bus and tractor-trailers, occurred during heavy snowfall at 7:30 a.m., shutting down the northbound highway between Etna and Carmel for five hours. One lane was reopened just after noon.

The 17 injured people were taken to hospitals in Bangor and 50 vehicles had to be towed, said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

One state trooper at the scene described the crash site as a “giant pile of metal,” according to a news release from the state police.

Speed and slippery road conditions were factors in the pileup, Hashey said, noting that the snow was wet and stuck to the backs of vehicles, blocking other drivers’ views of brake lights. There was no evidence that a single vehicle caused the pileup, he said.

Nearly 6 inches of snow fell Wednesday morning in the Bangor area, according to the National Weather Service in Gray, and heavy snow was falling as first responders arrived at the crash scene and began freeing people and treating the injured.

The initial accident occurred in Carmel and involved about 25 cars and tractor-trailers, Hashey said. At one point, state troopers had to walk over the tops of cars as they looked for victims who might be trapped in their vehicles.

The school bus, a pregnant woman and a person suffering a heart attack added a heightened urgency to the scene.

The Regional School Unit 19 bus was carrying two high school-age students with special needs and an adult aide. One student had a scraped chin, but no one else in the bus was hurt and none needed medical attention, a school official said.

Steve Dupuis, of Plymouth, was caught up in the crash, but managed to get out of his vehicle and help a man who was trapped in his car beneath the school bus.

“We didn’t see the car. … He was so buried down in there, I actually had to crawl over a car to even stand and talk to him,” Dupuis said. “You didn’t even know there was a car there.

“I cut his seat belt off with a pocket knife and I gave him my gloves so he wouldn’t cut himself on anything and we just snuck him through his driver’s window,” Dupuis said. “We just eked him out.”

The man escaped the crash with just a scratch on his forehead and another on his knuckles, Dupuis said.

HOSPITALS EXPECTED MORE INJURIES

Eastern Maine Medical Center treated 11 people at its emergency department. The patients’ conditions ranged from good to serious.

By afternoon, family members of the injured were waiting in an isolated area of the hospital as media and police officers milled about on the hospital grounds.

During an afternoon news conference at the hospital, Dr. James Clarke, chief of surgery at EMMC, said none of the patients treated there sustained life-threatening injuries, with fractures the most common injury. The hospital had set up an incident command center with 15 operating rooms ready for “whatever is coming,” Clarke said.

“We were very lucky,” he said. “I am pleasantly surprised by the nature of the injuries. We were ready for quite a bit more.”

Hospital officials said anyone concerned that a family member or friend might have been in the crash should contact the American Red Cross at 561-6197. Once a patient is confirmed to have been transported to EMMC, families can check on their status at 973-8101.

St. Joseph’s Hospital in Bangor treated six people injured in the crash.

The hospital activated its external disaster process and initiated a “code triage,” which alerts all hospital staff to a potential disaster and prompts the establishment of a command center, said spokeswoman Amy Kenney.

SCHOOL BUS ROLLS OVER CAR

The RSU 19 bus came upon the crash during heavy snow and whiteout conditions, said Superintendent Gregory Potter, whose district includes Corinna, Dixmont, Etna, Hartland, Newport, Palmyra, Plymouth and St. Albans.

“They were kind of right in the middle of it – vehicles were already off the road when they came upon it,” Potter said. “We apparently struck a car on the side and a pickup truck was against the front of the bus when it all settled out. The bus collided with at least two vehicles, and another vehicle struck the bus from behind.”

The bus, which was traveling at a slow speed, didn’t have major damage, he said.

“We’re feeling very fortunate,” Potter said.

So was the driver of a Chevy Cavalier the school bus rode up and over. He was OK even though the car was crushed.

CREWS HAD CLEARED SECTION OF ROAD

Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, said the agency had crews out on that stretch of road early Wednesday before the crash.

“We had all of our crews deployed, treating the roads, clearing the roads,” he said. “This was really a snow event so there wasn’t a lot of pretreatment that had to go on. There was low visibility in the area. There was heavy, falling snow accumulating rapidly.”

Authorities said the pileup was among the worst they could remember caused by snowfall, and Hashey said it was the worst he could remember along that stretch of highway. There was a crash in Hampden 15 years ago that involved 57 vehicles and occurred about six miles north of Wednesday’s pileup, he said.

“This was much worse as far as damage and number of vehicles,” Hashey said.

Wednesday’s accident was one of several weather-related, multicar crashes in the United States this winter, including a 170-car pileup on Interstate 94 in Michigan on Jan. 9, a 30-vehicle pileup on the Ohio Turnpike Feb. 15 that killed a pregnant woman, and a 35-car accident on Interstate 93 in New Hampshire on Jan. 2 that injured 12.

Hashey credited first responders, including forest rangers, game wardens, sheriff deputies, and local fire and emergency personnel. He said state troopers came from all over the area to assist.

Towing companies “were also a huge part, just getting these vehicles separated,” Hashey said. “We had vehicles that were literally just wedged together. There was no way to clear lanes to get things rolling.”

Hashey said anyone involved in the crashes who has not yet been interviewed by police should call Troop E at 973-3700.

 

Press Herald Staff Writer David Hench contributed to this report.