CARMEL, Maine — A combination of snow, speed and a busy morning commute Wednesday led to what may be the largest chain-reaction crash in state history.
Interstate 95 was shut down to northbound travel between Newport and Bangor for more than four hours after 75 vehicles slid, spun, slammed into each other and skidded off the snow-slickened highway.
“I’m absolutely shocked we don’t have any fatalities,” Maine State Police Lt. Sean Hashey, Troop E commander, said during a 2:30 p.m. press conference in Bangor shortly after the highway was reopened to traffic.
He said Hollywood movie makers could not have created a more disturbing scene.
“We had a lot of broken bones,” Hashey said later. “We had vehicles, literally, wedged together.”
Vehicles were heavily damaged in the collisions that stretched for about three miles starting near mile marker 173 in Carmel. Speed, following too closely, the weather conditions and limited visibility all played a role in the worst highway crash in recent history, Hashey said.
“If this wasn’t the largest multiple-vehicle crash ever in Maine in terms of numbers, it has to be in the top three,” said state police spokesman Stephen McCausland, adding it was the most extensive accident he could recall in his 27-year career.
At least 17 people were taken to Bangor hospitals, according to officials at the medical facilities, and Hashey said that there were others who sought treatment on their own.
In addition to those injured in the crash, which included a pregnant woman, another person had a heart attack after the collision, the lieutenant said. An off-duty emergency medical technician-firefighter from Waterville, Al Nygren, came upon the collision and was on hand to assist with the cardiac issue until the person was taken to the hospital, Hashey said.
Because the vehicles were so closely crammed together after the crash, responding troopers could be seen “walking on the tops of the vehicles” to check on occupants, the lieutenant said.
Both northbound lanes were closed soon after 7:30 a.m. when the accident began in Carmel. Traffic quickly backed up and dozens of drivers were stuck for hours. One lane reopened to traffic at about 11:30 a.m.
The initial crash involved more than 25 vehicles and led to a series of other chain-reaction wrecks leading up to the crash site, Hashey said.
“There was a lot of subsequent collisions caused by the roadway being blocked,” he said.
The initial 911 call was placed at 7:34 a.m. and came from a motorist who skidded off the roadway.
“From there, it turned into the initial pileup,” Hashey said.
Several different scenarios about how the first collision occurred have been circulated, including one where the person fled the scene. Hashey said while the investigation is still ongoing, he believes that “we’ll never know exactly who hit who.”
“I wouldn’t say the person fled the scene,” he added.
At least 50 vehicles had to be towed from the area, while another 25 were damaged but driveable.
“Some of those other crashes involved two or three vehicles each, and then other vehicles went off the road to avoid collisions,” McCausland said in a statement at 10:50 a.m.
McCausland said one trooper described the crash site as a “giant pile of metal.”
Peggy Leonard, who was heading to her home in Hampden at the time of the accident, said she felt fortunate to be alive after her vehicle wound up wedged between a pair of tractor-trailers.
“I didn’t realize how bad it was until one of the drivers of the semi-trucks that hit me came over, helped me out of my car and said that I was lucky to be alive,” she said in an email soon after the crash. “I did a 180 and was face to face with the second semi coming at me. I threw it in reverse, moved to the side and [that] probably saved my life.”
Leonard said there were about 30 vehicles in front of her involved in the crash.
“I have never seen anything like this in my life,” she said.
Matthew Theriault, a 24-year-old contractor and member of the National Guard, said he was one of the first drivers to come to a stop behind the pileup.
“People in the left lane were going way too fast for conditions,” Theriault said. The speed limit on the interstate had been reduced to 45 mph because of the snowy conditions. Theriault said he was driving about 40 mph, but he estimated some of the vehicles passing him were traveling in excess of 60 mph.
Those stuck behind the wreckage got out to check on injured drivers and handed out whatever blankets they had after state police arrived, he said.
A bus carrying two RSU 19 students and an aide to Stillwater Academy in Old Town was unable to stop before hitting one vehicle, and then another vehicle hit the bus from behind.
One of the students received a scraped chin and one may have a sprained thumb, RSU 19 Superintendent Greg Potter said, but the driver and aide were uninjured.
The collisions caused one tire on the bus to deflate. Potter did not yet have an estimate for the amount of damage.
The school district sent another bus to the scene to act as a warming center for those stuck on the highway, and a van picked up the students to return them home for the day, according to Potter.
“We’re feeling very fortunate,” Potter said later in the day.
A Bangor police detective was among those who had his vehicle totaled in the crash, Sgt. Tim Cotton said in a posting on the department’s Facebook page.
According to Cotton, Detective Larry Morrill stayed at the crash to assist other law enforcement officers helping victims from their vehicles.
A fleet of wreckers continued to remove damaged vehicles on Wednesday afternoon.
Eleven patients were taken to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, some with broken bones and others with more serious injuries, Dr. Jim Clarke, chief of surgery, said.
“It’s our impression that none [of the injuries] are immediately life-threatening,” he said.
He did not provide specific information about injuries, names or ages of those hurt for privacy reasons.
“The scene was very scary,” Clarke said. “It isn’t as bad as it could have been.”
Other patients were taken to St. Joseph Hospital, EMMC staff said.
Amy Kenney, spokeswoman for St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor, said the hospital initiated a “code triage” after learning of the pileup. As of late Wednesday morning, six patients were taken from the crash site to St. Joseph, according to Kenney.
“Coordinated efforts began immediately with Eastern Maine Medical Center to ensure communication of available community health care resources,” she added.
Conditions of the six patients at St. Joseph weren’t immediately available, but they were being “assessed and treated within the Emergency Department,” according to the hospital. The hospital expects at least one person could be admitted in the near future.
Dozens of vehicles were stuck behind the pileup for nearly four hours.
Most vehicles moved to the right to allow plow and tow trucks to pass so the snow and wreckage could be cleared.
Hashey said while Wednesday’s crash is the worst in recent history, he remembers another big pileup near the Coldbrook Road in Hampden about 15 years ago that involved 57 vehicles.
“This was much more significant,” the lieutenant said.
In addition to state police, firefighters from Carmel, Etna, Newburgh, Plymouth, the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office and officers from forestry and game wardens assisted at the hectic scene.
“People came out of the woodwork to help,” Hashey said. “We had people come from everywhere.”
BDN writers Ryan McLaughlin, Nick McCrea and Nok-Noi Ricker contributed to this report.