When Mark Zelazny got there, tractor-trailers already were scattered across Interstate 95 and a community of strangers was forming to help the injured. Rescue crews went expeditiously from car to car, truck to truck, assessing the damage. Police rerouted traffic and closed the busiest north-south highway on the eastern seaboard. The nation marveled.

The 10:50 a.m. pileup in Stafford County on Feb. 22 was one for the record books: Its 117 vehicles made it the largest crash in Virginia history and one of the biggest accidents the nation has seen. It shut down the highway for 12 hours, snarled traffic throughout Northern Virginia and left one person dead and 31 others seriously injured.

Yesterday, state and local officials met in Fredericksburg, Va., to assess their performance and response. They concluded that they did pretty well despite inclement weather, limited resources and a colossal mess.

"Everyone pulled together and did a great job," said Zelazny, a Virginia Department of Transportation spokesman. "We believe that everyone deserves an A on the project and that it was phenomenal to be able to take care of the accident, get it cleaned up and open the road in less than 12 hours."

The crash occurred in seconds during a flash snowstorm that created whiteout conditions and dropped more than an inch of snow in a matter of minutes. VDOT officials said yesterday that the accident was "impossible to predict and unpreventable," adding that chemicals that had been spread on the road were powerless to combat the sudden snow.

"There was almost no visibility. It came upon people very suddenly. They weren't expecting the conditions, and they were coming over a hill," said Charles Kilpatrick, a VDOT resident engineer who was at the crash site. "It all came together, and we hope it was a chance occurrence."

The meeting yesterday was closed to the public. It was designed to assess the emergency response to the accident and the handling of the crash investigation, and to identify areas for improvement. State officials said that it is hard to know what -- if anything -- could have been done to prevent the accident and that much of the reaction was on target.

One area of concern that emerged yesterday was communication. Because the various local and state agencies do not have common communication systems, there were minor delays in reopening the road. Some inaccurate information was passed around -- specifically regarding the number of vehicles involved -- and there was some initial confusion about who was supposed to do what.

Officials also want to address additional ways to alert motorists about road closures, and they discussed methods for shaving time off cleanup and investigative efforts.

"We're going to have a working group that will further define for the Fredericksburg area how we are going to respond to these incidents," Kilpatrick said. "You can't stop the snow from falling or the amount of traffic, but we can always learn from those events and prepare for the next time."

Virginia State Police said yesterday that the official vehicle toll was 117, including 17 tractor-trailers. Although initial reports suggested that the accident scene was about three miles long, state police said yesterday it actually covered the length of five football fields.

State police First Sgt. Jeff Fox said the accident probably started after a number of vehicles crested a hill near Aquia and then went out of control as they headed down the other side. The crush of snow caused cars and trucks to spin, and as they blocked the road, others coming over the hill slammed into them before they knew what was happening.

It is unlikely that police will bring criminal charges against drivers in the general pileup, but Fox said police are investigating the fatality. A 58-year-old Woodbridge woman was killed when her car was crushed by a tractor-trailer.

"It would be wrong for me to say that everyone was driving too fast for the conditions, but it would be safe to say that there were many vehicles going faster than was safe," Fox said yesterday.

"We have to ask if we should charge everybody or charge nobody," Fox said. "A lot of people were facing a sudden emergency, and there was a panic factor involved."Rescue crews work on one of the 117 vehicles in the Feb. 22 crash in Stafford County. The accident was the largest in Virginia history.