Fatal I-95 Wreck Felt Across Region

Viewed from the Springfield mixing bowl area, traffic inches south on Interstate 95 last night in the direction of a multi-vehicle crash.
Viewed from the Springfield mixing bowl area, traffic inches south on Interstate 95 last night in the direction of a multi-vehicle crash. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Morse and Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 14, 2006

A fatal crash on Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia during the evening rush backed up traffic for more than five hours last night, leaving motorists fuming in their cars and sending others out for side-of-the-road picnic dinners and the odd game of Frisbee. One motorist was killed in chain-reaction crashes involving a tractor-trailer and at least seven other vehicles, according to state officials and witnesses.

Cars stood still in a backup extending more than 10 miles from the crash scene just south of Lorton, north to Interstate 395 near Alexandria. Congestion spread onto the Capitol Beltway as well, stalling motorists trying to go west, and snarled nearby state roads.

The standstill was severe even by the standards of Northern Virginia commuting.

"I've been here four years, and I'd definitely put this in the top three," said Gil Castaneda, speaking from the operations department of the Virginia Department of Transportation in Arlington.

The wreck occurred about 5:25 p.m. in the southbound lanes of I-95. Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State police, said a tractor-trailer was traveling south when it struck one vehicle in front of it. The impact caused the truck to strike another vehicle. An occupant of one of the vehicles was killed. The collisions caused other crashes, involving at least five other vehicles.

Brandon Ford, a welder from Woodbridge, was driving north on the highway and saw the wreckage to his left. A tractor-trailer was stopped sideways across the interstate, he said. About four or five vehicles were in front of the truck -- to the south -- facing the wrong way and damaged, he said. Two other vehicles were stopped north of the truck. In one of the vehicles, "The air bags were all over the place and it was destroyed," Ford said. He remembered turning to his girlfriend, Staci Daugherty, in the passenger seat and saying, "Someone died."

State police eventually shut down the regular southbound lanes. On that stretch of I-95, there is a two-lane HOV section, which is separated from the main lanes, Castaneda said. Traffic was diverted to the HOV lanes and to U.S. 1, he said.

By 6:45 p.m., traffic was backed up to Seminary Road in Alexandria, Castaneda said. Vehicles also were backed up on roads feeding into I-95.

Feeder routes "are pretty much a nightmare as well," Castaneda said. He said he had heard reports of two motorists getting into an altercation. But other stranded motorists reported people being in good spirits, getting out of the cars to enjoy the spring weather.

"Surprisingly, everyone has seemed extremely good-tempered about it," said Shelley Reich, speaking by cellphone from her Honda Pilot. She, her husband and their son had left yesterday from Northern New Jersey, heading for a long weekend in Williamsburg. They were stuck near Franconia Road from shortly after the wreck until at least 9:15 p.m.

"People were throwing Frisbees, walking their dog on the side of the road," Reich said, speaking about 9:15 p.m., about an hour before the lanes were reopened. "People were getting out and smoking. They're still out, little clumps of people, hanging out, chatting. . . . I've never been stuck this long, never been stuck in traffic like this. I've never seen anything like this."

Reich's husband, Richard, was exasperated: "We're all hungry, tired and thirsty." He said that he would have liked to see more police among the stranded motorists -- and that the clogged roads didn't speak well for the area's emergency preparedness.

Near the Springfield interchange, Carrie Sparks, 25, also was stuck. She had left Glover Park about 8 p.m., heading to Richmond and then Bluffton, S.C., for the Easter holiday. She was trying to get off I-395 and onto a smaller road but found nothing but slow going. She did, however, make progress on reading the novel "The Constant Gardener." With 200 pages remaining, she said, "I think I'll finish it."

Stuart Maslak, traveling with his wife and son, was frustrated.

"We move three car lengths and then stop for half an hour," he said about 9:30 p.m. " . . . We need food, water and porta-potties."

Staff writer Preston Williams contributed to this report.

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