CARMEL, Maine — At 7:34 a.m. on Wednesday, a woman called 911 to say she had skidded off Interstate 95 near mile marker 173. From all accounts, that was the beginning of perhaps Maine’s largest single traffic accident: A 75-car pileup that injured 17.
“While that caller was on the phone with us she described several more vehicles, to include a tractor trailer that was now skidding off the roadway and colliding,” said Lt. Sean Hashey, Maine State Police Troop E commander. “From there it turned into a massive pileup.”
Police on Thursday continued to investigate the collisions, reviewing new photos from the crash site, some of which were released to the public, compiling paperwork records and conducting interviews with witnesses. The Maine Department of Transportation also collected data for its own analysis of the crash that closed both northbound lanes for about four hours.
One witness, Newport resident Ray Rauscher, is a boom operator for the 101st Air Refueling Wing of the Maine Air National Guard. He was heading to work when he came upon a jackknifed tractor trailer and several other crashed vehicles that blocked the highway. He was able to stop about 10 feet before the last vehicle.
“I thought I was safe. I was totally stopped,” Rauscher said Thursday from his bed at Eastern Maine Medical Center, where he is being treated for a broken leg, a compressed-fractured vertebra in his back, as well as cuts and bruises. “I’m thinking I’m going to sit here in my car and everybody will stop behind me.”
That was not the case. In his rearview mirror, Rauscher saw a dark colored vehicle, possibly a minivan and numerous others bearing down on him “going really fast.”
“I thought for a second, maybe I should get out of the car but then I thought, ‘I’ll be killed if I get out of the car,’ so I just braced for impact,” the air guardsman said. “I got hit. I can’t tell you how many times — numerous times. I got spun around. My car was smashed to pieces.
I don’t know if I passed out or not.”
The next thing he knew, Rauscher said, his leg was pinned against his crushed driver’s side door and he could see his radiator.
“The inside of my car was just crushed,” he said. “The back of my car was nonexistent and the front of my car was nonexistent. There was a hole in my windshield. My dash was smashed up.”
He wanted to turn off his car because he thought it might catch fire, but was unable to because the ignition was crushed.
The crash resulted in “a fractured or smashed fibula, compressed-fractured number four vertebra in my back [and a] baseball size bump on my head, huge bruises and cuts on the back of my legs. I had glass in me that had to be cleaned out.”
The veteran military man tried to stay calm to avoid shock, but after awhile he started to succumb. He began shaking and shivering.
“About that time a first responder handed me a blanket through the hole in the glass,” Rauscher said. “They cut me out but they couldn’t get me out of the car.”
He had wiggled to the passenger side of his crushed vehicle and told the responder he would attempt to stand, but might fall.
“I swung my body out with all my effort and he caught me,” Rauscher said. “These guys here did an awesome job. I’m really thankful to be alive really. If you could see my car right now it’s pretty amazing.”
Close call for policeman
Bangor police Detective Larry Morrill had a similar, but luckier, experience.
When he saw a vehicle in front of him lose control and smash into and then “ride the guardrail,” Morrill realized just how slippery the roads had become.
He was about a half mile behind the initial crash scene when he became part of one of the subsequent collisions.
A pickup truck in the lane beside him started to fishtail and knocked into Morrill’s Ford Taurus causing him to lose control.
With his car sliding sideways down the highway, “I went right into the back of another vehicle,” the detective said.
His Taurus ended up near a guardrail and all he could do was watch as “two tractor trailers came up over the hill.”
“I was ready to sail out the window and go over the guardrail,” said Morrill, who quickly changed his mind after thinking that if the big rigs had to ditch they would probably head for the guardrails.
“It was frightening,” he said.
Both big rigs were able to stop.
Morrill, who was unhurt, described the road as ice-covered. He immediately called his wife but had to cut the call short because he was picked up by one of the first Maine State Police troopers to arrive who was heading to the front of the chain of wrecked vehicles because it was initially reported that there were multiple fatalities.
“We didn’t know how bad it was going to be,” Morrill said.
Upon arriving at the scene where the collisions began, he saw a school bus with a car wedged under it. “We were concerned about the car the bus was on top of.”
His first thought: “This was not going to be good.”
When he and the trooper arrived at the school bus, however, they found the car’s driver who was up walking around, and “that was a huge relief.”
An even bigger relief was learning that none of the injuries suffered by others — and there were many — were life-threatening.
“To have nobody killed in that was totally amazing,” Morrill said Thursday.
The responding teams of firefighters and ambulance crews from the region, deputies from Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office and officers from forestry and game wardens, as well as people at the scene and the tow truck companies did an amazing job working together, he said.
“You can’t plan for that,” Morrill said. “Everybody knew what had to be done and did it.”