By Steve Vogel, Philip Rucker and Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 17, 2008
Eight people were killed and six others were injured early yesterday morning in southern Prince George's County when a motorist unwittingly drove into a smoke-shrouded crowd of people gathered on a dark rural road to watch as two drivers roared off in an illegal street race, police said.
The crash was one of the deadliest motor vehicle accidents in the Washington region in more than 25 years. It highlighted the risks of street racing, a common practice in remote areas where there are long stretches of road and few traffic lights.
The driver of the white Ford Crown Victoria that hit the group might have been blinded by the cloud of white tire smoke and debris kicked up by the two vehicles that had just started their race on Indian Head Highway near Pine Drive in Accokeek, a well-known racing spot, police said.
A large crowd of spectators -- witness accounts ranged from 50 to almost 300 people -- had gathered about 3 a.m. to watch the race, police said. The racers had created a large cloud of smoke when they spun and screeched their tires in place while "burning out," which drivers do at the start of a race to warm their engines and tires.
The spectators, who were at the starting line, had begun to move into the roadway as they looked north in the direction of the cars racing away, witnesses said. The Crown Victoria came up from behind, hitting several people in the road before it careened onto a grassy embankment, where more spectators were standing, witnesses said. Police said they are investigating reports that the Crown Victoria's headlights were off.
Witnesses and police described a grisly scene. People flew 15 feet in the air as they slammed off the car's hood and roof, which became covered in blood. Shoes and pieces of clothing were scattered along the grassy median for 200 yards. Investigators marked the pavement with spray paint. Below one circle, they sprayed "hat." Next to another, "2 shoes." A third fluorescent mark said "body."
Steve Swann, 36, of Fort Washington witnessed the crash. "It sounded like a bunch of booms -- boom, boom, boom, boom," he said. "Then, everything came to a stop."
Indian Head Highway (Route 210) is a four-lane road with two lanes in each direction separated by a grassy median where the crash occurred. The speed limit is 55 mph, and there are no streetlights.
Ron Satterfield, 59, who lives off the highway, said he sees street racing on the road far too often.
"This is like a racetrack," he said. "From 228 to Bryans Road is a racetrack, especially in the summertime. You'll see people do in excess of 100 miles per hour all the time."
He expressed frustration that more hasn't been done to shut down the racing. "How many people have to die before the officials say, 'Hey, we need to do something on this street?' " Satterfield asked.
Elizabeth Campbell, a lieutenant with the Charles County EMS department, was the first responder on the scene. She said she expected to see and hear chaos, but what she encountered was a quiet, almost surreal scene with people standing around, some of them appearing to be in shock.
"When one pedestrian is struck, it's a bad scene, but with multiple pedestrians, it was overwhelming," said Campbell, who quickly set about treating victims and placing white sheets over the dead.
Cpl. Clinton Copeland, a Prince George's police spokesman, called the scene the most "horrific" in his 14-year career.
"This is a tragedy. . . . It's a tragic incident, and it's one of those situations you want to never see happen in your county," he said.
William Gaines Jr., of Nanjemoy in Charles County, said his father, William Gaines Sr., 61, was hit and killed while standing next to him in the road. He said he had his back turned when the Crown Victoria came through the crowd. When he turned around, he said, his father was gone.
"The race was over with," said Gaines, who returned to the scene yesterday afternoon. "The car came up from behind us. I didn't see the car until it was over. It happened so fast."
Police did not release the names of those who were killed or injured but said all the deceased were men. Family members identified four of the dead as Mark Courtney, 33, of Leonardtown, who worked as a groundskeeper at Patuxent River Naval Air Station; Gaines, a construction worker who lived in Nanjemoy; Darrell Wills, whose age and home town weren't available; and Milton Pinkney, 41, of Aquasco, who worked in the cement business.
Seven people were pronounced dead at the scene, police said. An eighth died at a hospital. A Maryland Shock Trauma Center spokeswoman said two victims, ages 37 and 44, were flown there by helicopter about 4:30 a.m. By yesterday afternoon, she said, both were in serious condition, and one was in surgery. Copeland said he did not know where the other victims were taken.
Police said the Crown Victoria was not involved in the racing. The name of the driver, who was not injured, was not released because he is considered a witness, Copeland said. A tractor-trailer driver, whose name was not released, struck one of the bodies after coming upon the scene, police said.
Copeland said it was too early in the investigation to discuss criminal charges. He said police are still trying to find the drivers involved in the race.
"There are a lot of questions we still need answers to," Copeland said.
Karen Savoy Phillips, 49, who lives in the Hunters Point subdivision in Accokeek a few hundred yards off of Indian Head Highway, said she has heard the racing and called authorities to report it. She said she did not call police about 2:30 a.m. yesterday when she heard racing out on the highway, nor did she hear a collision or the commotion that followed.
"I've heard it in the early morning hours," Phillips said of racing in general.
Of yesterday's crash, she said, "I was just shocked that people died."
The accident was one of the deadliest motor vehicle mishaps in the Washington area in decades. In 1979, 10 teenagers were fatally injured in a pickup truck crash in Anne Arundel County.
Yesterday's incident was the kind police say they have tried to prevent as part of an illegal late-night pastime that has gone on for decades. The races can draw hundreds of people from across the Washington area, mostly on Friday and Saturday nights, and are often held along dark, remote stretches of road. The events, whose locations are spread via word of mouth, often have a party atmosphere in which participants display souped-up vehicles built for speed. They can draw prizes of thousands of dollars for the winner, although racers say it's more often about bragging rights.
That area of Indian Head Highway is a popular racing spot, Copeland said. However, he said, it's more often motorcycles than cars.
"The way the road is set up, it's definitely enticing for someone who wants to see how fast their vehicle can go," Copeland said.
He said police have used radar and speed traps in the area. "It's not like it's a situation we're not aware of," he said.
Copeland said it is difficult for officers to enforce street racing laws. "No matter how much enforcement you do, no matter how many speed traps you put down, it's still up to the individual to make the decision."
As word of the accident spread, people gathered at the site, some carrying flowers and teddy bears. Some said they came because they are familiar with the street racing scene and knew some of the victims. One person set a simple bouquet of daisies by the side of the road.
Mary Wilson, 37, of Marbury, who went to the scene late yesterday afternoon, said she knew two of the victims.
"I don't know what to say. I feel very empty," Wilson said. "I never imagined it would end like this. I'm just all shook up and nervous."
Denee Hines, 20, a daughter of the owner of Healthy Hair & Co., a salon near the accident scene, said she was horrified to learn of the accident. She said her mother has talked of a street racing problem in the area. "We couldn't believe it," Hines said of the accident. "Our shop as a whole is putting out all our prayers for the families."
Unlike many races, which draw a mostly young crowd, yesterday morning's event drew spectators of all ages, including parents with their children. Those killed and hurt ranged in age from their 20s to 61, police said.
The road, a major commuter route between Washington and Southern Maryland, reopened at 3 p.m., after firefighters used hoses to wash bloodstains and debris from the pavement.
Staff writers Rosalind S. Helderman, Ruben Castaneda, Hamil R. Harris, Avis Thomas-Lester and Jenna Johnson and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.