After walking half a mile in the early morning darkness, the young woman came into the Route 301 Citgo station in tears, clutching her purse.
The station's assistant manager, Frances Jones, recalled that the woman said the gas in her Ford Escort had "died down, and the car cut off." The woman had been driving north on 301 in the Brandywine area of Prince George's County early Thursday. She told Jones she abandoned her car with its hazard lights on and walked to the station.
The woman, who told Jones that her name was Rose, was crying and appeared to be "scared to death," Jones said in an interview yesterday.
"All of a sudden, we heard this big boom that sounded like thunder," Jones said. "I said to her, 'Oh, gosh, now where did you park your car?' "
What started with a distressed motorist seeking assistance ended with three people dead in a fiery crash involving five vehicles on a heavily traveled highway in Southern Maryland. In the darkness just before 5 a.m., a taxicab swerved left to miss the Escort, which was parked in the left lane of the northbound side. The cab crossed the median strip and smashed into a dump truck that was heading south, sending the dump truck back across the median to the northbound lanes, where it demolished a catering truck and a Buick sedan.
The cabdriver was treated for what authorities said were non-life-threatening injuries, as was the driver of a Chevrolet Monte Carlo that was involved in the crash.
No charges were filed against the young woman, whom police have declined to publicly identify. Gail Morauer, a relative of the Citgo station's owner, said she gave the woman a ride to the woman's brother's house in La Plata after the crash. Morauer said the woman told her she is a Howard University medical student.
Police said the woman is unlikely to be held culpable for the crash.
"This person made every attempt to do the right thing with the vehicle. They left their four-way flashers on, and they walked to get help," said Maryland State Police Cpl. Rob Moroney.
The Prince George's state's attorney's office will decide what legal action if any should be taken after the police investigation concludes, officials said. Ramon Korionoff, a spokesman for the office, said that if a person makes every reasonable effort to act safely after a traffic breakdown, charges are not likely.
"Accidents do happen, unfortunately, and this is a tragic one," he said.
Police withheld the names of the three dead motorists yesterday, saying they had not been positively identified. They were the drivers of the dump truck, the catering truck and the Buick.
"It's not an easy process," Moroney said. "They were burned beyond recognition."
For some officials and residents in Southern Maryland, the deadly crash on Route 301 was further evidence that the highway is too congested and dangerous. In the past decade, the number of vehicles per day passing by the crash site has increased by 33 percent, to about 80,000 vehicles, according to state highway officials. The road is the main artery through Charles County and a heavily traveled commuter route to the District.
"The roads haven't kept up with the growth," said Charles County Commissioner Al Smith (R-Waldorf). "We are sorely behind in the needed traffic channels to safely move this traffic to and from work."
State Highway Administrator Neil Pedersen said his agency would conduct an engineering review to see if safety can be improved around the crash site. There are no barriers between the north and south lanes of traffic, only an eight-inch curb and a grass median. In the first nine months of 2003, there were 691 traffic accidents along Route 301 in Prince George's and Charles, police said. No more recent figures were immediately available yesterday.
At the stretch of road near the crash site, residential driveways lead directly onto the six-lane divided highway that has a posted speed limit of 55 mph. The road is illuminated only by streetlights at intersections.
In the darkness Thursday morning, James A. Long Sr., 54, of Hughesville, was driving along 301 in his Chevrolet Monte Carlo when he slammed into the catering truck after it was hit by the dump truck. He said he stumbled out of his car before it was engulfed by flames.
He said yesterday that he hurt his neck and chest.
"Just got to keep your eyes open more, I guess," he said. "You never know about the traffic."