The following press release was issued by the Virginia State Police today:
CULPEPER - Since Thursday evening (July 23, 2009), Virginia State Police have responded to four separate crashes within a 15-mile stretch of Interstate 81. Three of the crashes involved minor injuries. A fourth crash claimed the lives of two individuals.
The northbound lanes of I-81 were re-opened as of 10:48 a.m. Friday (July 24). From the initial crash Thursday evening near the I-81 and I-66 interchange, overhead electronic messaging was utilized along I-81 to caution motorists of impending detours and slowed traffic.
Crash #1 - 302 mile marker on I-81 North:
The first crash occurred Thursday at approximately 7:20 p.m. in the northbound lanes of I-81 at the 302 mile marker, just north of the I-81 and I-66 interchange in Frederick County. A tractor-trailer loaded with watermelons ran off the road and overturned in the median. The weight of the load caused the trailer to rupture. The driver suffered minor injuries. Because of the extensive clean up involved in removing the tractor-trailer and its load from the median, northbound traffic on I-81 was detoured onto U.S. Highway 11 at Exit 296 for Strasburg. Westbound I-66 traffic heading north onto I-81 was also diverted around the crash.
Crash #2 (Fatal) - 296 mile marker on I-81 North:
As a result of the detour at Exit 296, there was a three to four mile back up on northbound I-81. At approximately 10:15 p.m. Thursday, a northbound tractor-trailer failed to slow in time for the detouring traffic at the 296 mile marker in Shenandoah County. It struck a passenger vehicle in front of it. The impact forced the passenger vehicle underneath a tractor-trailer in front of it, thus sparking a chain reaction. The second tractor-trailer struck a third northbound tractor-trailer, which then struck a fourth tractor-trailer.
The initial crash of the first two tractor-trailers and the passenger vehicle also caused one of the tractor-trailer's side fuel tanks to immediately rupture. A fire spread rapidly through the vehicles burning the passenger vehicle beyond recognition.
The two individuals in the passenger vehicle died at the scene. State police are waiting for confirmation from the Medical Examiner's Office on the identity of the two deceased.
The drivers of the four tractor-trailers involved escaped the fiery crash with non-life threatening injuries.
A Virginia State Police Accident Reconstruction Team, Motor Carrier Safety Team and investigators with the state police Bureau of Criminal Investigation's Culpeper Field Office were on scene assisting the primary investigating trooper, Trooper J.R. Pine. Charges are pending at this time.
Northbound I-81 traffic was being detoured at Exit 291 for Toms Creek over to U.S. Highway 11, as a result of this fatal crash.
Crash #3 - 287 mile marker on I-81 North:
Once again, northbound traffic was slowed as a result of the detour at Exit 291. A northbound tractor-trailer attempting to change lanes to avoid the slowing traffic in front of it, clipped another tractor-trailer in the rear. The impact sparked a chain reaction in which the second tractor-trailer was pushed into a tractor-trailer in front of it. The third tractor-trailer was pushed forward and struck a passenger vehicle.
The first tractor-trailer then jackknifed, overturned and spilled its load across the northbound lanes of I-81.
None of the drivers involved in this third crash was seriously injured. Another detour was set up to divert traffic while the overturned tractor-trailer and its load were cleared from the roadway. Northbound I-81 traffic was detoured to U.S. Highway 11 at Exit 283 for Woodstock.
Crash #4 - 296 mile marker on I-81 North:
Early Friday, state police were able to re-open a far right northbound lane to allow traffic to pass by the fiery, fatal crash at the 296 mile marker. At approximately 4:49 a.m., a tractor-trailer loaded with grapes was traveling past the site when it ran off the right side of the interstate and overturned.
Because the tractor-trailer is far enough off the interstate and so as to not restrict northbound I-81 traffic, crews will return in the predawn hours on Sunday (July 26) to upright and remove the tractor-trailer.
The driver suffered minor injures. Charges are pending.