2 Killed, 15 Injured in Chain of Beltway Crashes

The collisions occurred on both sides of the Capital Beltway near the Ritchie Marlboro Road exit. Two of the 15 people injured were police officers. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Clarence Williams and Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 31, 2007

A police attempt to stop a speeding motorcycle touched off a gruesome series of collisions on both sides of the Capital Beltway in Prince George's County last night, killing two people and injuring 15 others, including two officers.

The seven-vehicle pileup, one of the Beltway's most violent in recent memory, closed down all lanes of the inner loop in the Forestville area for nearly five hours and snarled traffic on both sides of the highway late into the night.

"I've been in law enforcement a long time and have been on a number of tough scenes. And this is a tough scene," said Prince George's Police Chief Melvin C. High. "Your thoughts go to [the injured and dead], and their families and friends."

The accident was set in motion about 7 p.m. when a Prince George's police cruiser chasing the motorcycle on the outer loop near the Ritchie Marlboro Road exit slammed into a vehicle after the motorcycle cut in front of the car, police said.

The force of the impact caused the car to go airborne over the median's guardrail and into oncoming traffic on the inner loop. That caused a chain-reaction crash involving five southbound cars.

The motorcycle sped off, and its driver remained at large, police said.

Details about the two dead were unavailable last night. The 15 injured were taken to hospitals; one of them was said to be in critical condition.

The collisions left vehicles strewn across the inner loop. One vehicle was overturned and bent like an accordion. Police said it was a sport-utility vehicle, but it was no longer identifiable. Rescuers ripped the tops off of at least two cars to free their occupants, said Cpl. Stephen Pacheco.

The officers involved in the crash were traveling in two vehicles, officials said. One was pursuing the motorcycle; the other was off-duty and heading home on the inner loop.

High said both officers were seriously injured, but the off-duty officer was hurt more severely. He was being treated last night at Prince George's Hospital Center. Neither officer's injuries were believed to be life-threatening, Pacheco said.

Traffic on the Beltway was at a standstill for hours. The inner loop was closed near Exit 13, the ramp for Ritchie Marlboro Road.

High said police captured the pursuit and ensuing crash with a video camera in a cruiser. Authorities will use the footage to try to identify the motorcycle and its driver, he said. Police also interviewed several witnesses.

Pacheco said some lanes of the Beltway near the crash scene will be closed after the morning rush today as the investigation continues. The closures were expected to start about 10 a.m.

The officer who pursed the motorcycle has been put on administrative leave, authorities said. Neither officer was immediately identified.

The accident "illustrates the problem we have with speed and what can happen in an instant," High said.

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