It was just like any other morning for James Long.

Up before dawn, into his Chevrolet Monte Carlo for the hour-long commute from Hughesville to the construction job in downtown Washington.

But in the darkness Thursday morning along Route 301 in Brandywine, Long, 54, suddenly became part of a fiery crash involving five vehicles that killed three people and shut down traffic in both directions on the highway for several hours.

A stalled Ford Escort, its hazard lights blinking, had been abandoned in the left lane of northbound traffic by a woman who walked to a nearby gas station for help, authorities and witnesses said. Just before 5 a.m., a taxicab, driven by Margaret B. Eyombo, 53, of Waldorf, came up behind the Escort, swerved left across the grass median strip and crashed into a dump truck traveling south, authorities said. The dump truck careered across the median, colliding with a catering truck and a Buick sedan. Long crashed into the catering truck as it spun around into the center lane.

Propane tanks on the catering truck burst into flames, authorities and witnesses said, followed by an explosion of two saddle tanks of diesel fuel on the dump truck.

"Everything just started burning. It was very, very bad," said Long, who stumbled away from his car before the flames engulfed it. "You want to help people, there's fire and all, and you just can't do it."

The drivers of the dump truck, catering truck and Buick died at the scene, authorities said. As of Friday, Maryland State Police had not released their names, pending positive identification.

"It's not an easy process," said Cpl. Rob Moroney. "They were burned beyond recognition."

Long and Eyombo were flown by helicopter to the Prince George's Hospital Center with non-life-threatening injuries, authorities said. Long, who was released Thursday afternoon, said he had pain in his neck and chest from whiplash. Attempts to reach Eyombo at her home and through relatives were unsuccessful.

The accident backed up traffic along Route 301 and adjacent roads for miles. For much of the morning, one lane of northbound traffic was diverted to the southbound lanes while southbound traffic, closed for six hours, was funneled onto other roads. By about noon -- seven hours after the accident -- traffic moved both ways while tow trucks dragged away the charred, twisted remains of the vehicles.

It took John Verrico about an hour and a half on the commuter bus just to travel the short distance between Waldorf and Brandywine, on his way to work at the Navy Yard in Southeast Washington.

"It was brutal," he said, even though the bus driver tried to avoid traffic. "This guy took all kinds of back roads, and every single road was backed up."

For some Southern Maryland residents and officials, the crash was further evidence that Route 301 is dangerous and crowded. In the past decade, the number of vehicles passing by the crash site each day has increased 33 percent to about 80,000 vehicles, according to state transportation officials. And in the first nine months of last year, there were 691 traffic accidents along the portions of Route 301 in Charles and Prince George's counties, police said.

"This is a very dangerous road, and it's getting worse every day," said Francis Reidy, who owns a heating and air conditioning company near the crash site. "The road is totally inadequate for the traffic flow. There's not a single streetlight here. It's crazy."

Charles County Commissioner Al Smith (R-Waldorf) said Friday that the crash reinforces the need for the county's top-priority road project -- a western bypass of Route 301 around Waldorf -- that could alleviate the congestion.

"The roads haven't kept up with the growth," he said. "We are sorely behind in the needed traffic channels to safely move this traffic to and from work."

Staff writer Susan Kinzie contributed to this report.

Maryland State Police troopers survey the scene of Thursday's fiery collision on Route 301 in Brandywine, which involved five cars and killed three people.The early-morning accident left grass charred and people wondering when something can be done to alleviate heavy traffic on Route 301.