Seriously injured, trapped in their vehicle and hidden from the view of passing motorists, two auto accident victims set a fire yesterday morning in a wooded area near Interstate 270 in a desperate attempt to get the attention of rescuers. But the driver was killed after the blaze accidentally engulfed the vehicle. A 19-year-old woman who managed to escape was seriously injured.
Officials said the couple, cold and having suffered fractured legs, started the blaze in desperation, hours after their car veered off the I-270 spur near Bethesda and their cries had gone unheard over the din from the interstate, where cars whizzed past a few yards away.
Investigators said both were still in the car, which was resting on its left side, when they started the fire. The driver, identified by state police as Brian Milliren, 25, of Frederick, was trapped, and the passenger, identified as Kandra Edmunds, also of Frederick, who had a broken left thigh, had been unable to climb out the passenger side door.
When the fire spread, officials said, Edmunds attempted to free Milliren but was unable to. She then climbed out and lay in the underbrush watching the flames consume the car and the driver.
Fire officials found her lying injured and distraught in the woods after the blaze was finally noticed shortly before 7 a.m. The car, which state police said was a Ford Taurus, was 20 feet from the highway and about 30 feet from the parking lot of a large office park that includes Marriott International Corp.'s headquarters.
In that tiny band of wilderness, off the interstate's northbound lanes just north of Democracy Boulevard, the tragedy unfolded.
Edmunds was taken to Suburban Hospital, where she was in serious condition.
Investigators believe the accident happened after midnight, according to Montgomery County fire department spokesman Capt. Eric Ramacciotti. The couple was believed to have been returning from a day trip to Virginia and were en route to Frederick.
Ramacciotti said Edmunds reported that she had been asleep in the front passenger seat when the crash occurred.
"They both had broken legs, and the driver was pinned in the car and nobody heard their calls for help," he said.
"They decided to start a signal fire, probably not long after 6 a.m. We got the call at 6:45, and the car [then] wasn't totally engulfed but most of it was."
"The car was leaning over on the driver's side," Ramacciotti said. "The driver was pinned. . . . The passenger side was sitting up in the air. Because of her fractured leg and the height of the car, she couldn't get the door open."
Ramacciotti said the driver started the fire to alert other drivers to their presence. He said he did not know how the fire was started or whether it was started inside or outside the car. "The intent was to set something on fire and not the car, but the car obviously caught on fire.
"It got out of control," he said. "The female tried to pull the other person out. He was stuck. She got out, dragged herself out of the car."
He said it took an enormous effort for her to get out of the car, but "fire is a great motivator."
Ramacciotti, who was on the scene and helped minister to the survivor, said the driver was incinerated in the car: "We don't know what he died from, whether it was the burns or the injuries from the accident."
He said Edmunds was anguished when rescue crews got to her. "She was in a lot of pain because of her leg fractures, and she was obviously distraught because of the incident."
Yesterday, there was only a faint scar in the underbrush where the accident happened--flattened saplings, plowed-up dirt and charred reminders from the wreck: windshield shards, pieces of a bumper and a small, partially melted sneaker.