By Joe Beck
Harry Hamilton Jr. was a shaken hero Monday after pulling one passenger to safety from a flaming wreck Friday night on Interstate 81 near the Kernstown exit in Frederick County.
Hamilton said he was grateful to have saved the life of Zackary Santor, 18, of Staunton, but the horrifying sights and sounds of watching two other passengers die inside the 1998 Jeep Cherokee have robbed him of sleep and some of the satisfaction he might otherwise have gained from his dramatic actions.
Santor's mother and the driver of the Jeep, Heather Lee Santor, 39, and Acoye M. Breckenridge, 18, both of Staunton, could not be rescued, despite the efforts of Hamilton and two others he identified as off-duty firefighters.
A tractor-trailer rear-ended the Santors' Jeep while it was stopped in southbound traffic near a road construction site at about 7:48 p.m. The Jeep then plowed into the rear of a Chrysler PT Cruiser driven by Hamilton's daughter, Jenelle Embrey, 45, of Linden. Hamilton was in the passenger's side of the front seat.
The driver of the truck, Lance W. Anderson, 43, of Hudson, S.D. received a summons from state trooper B.G. Davis for reckless driving, according to state police spokesman Sgt. F.L. "Les" Tyler.
Hamilton, 66, of Winchester, said he had a "couple of cuts" on his hands from breaking the window on the passenger's side of the Jeep and helping Zackary Santor scramble out of the vehicle.
"He was like in a daze," Hamilton said of Santor. "I grabbed him and took him out of there. I remember he was sort of like pedaling a bicycle with his feet going, trying to get out of that window."
Hamilton said Zackary Santor was crying "mom, mom" after climbing out of the vehicle.
As Hamilton then tried to decide how to rescue Heather Santor and Breckenridge when the two other people stepped in to help, he said. They used a fire extinguisher and that started to bring the fire under control for a few moments, but the extinguisher quickly ran out of spray and "then the blaze roared through the whole vehicle," Hamilton said.
"That boy watched his mother burn to death and his best friend in the back seat burn to death," Hamilton said of Zackary Santor. "It's something that's going to take a long time for me forget about."
Hamilton said the impact of the accident sent the Jeep 250 feet down the road and the PT Cruiser 300 feet. He estimated the truck traveled 500 feet.
"We were spinning around in circles and then the truck hit us again," Hamilton said.
Hamilton said he emerged from his vehicle about 60 feet away from the Jeep and immediately dashed to the stricken vehicle. He said he found out later that Heather Lee Santor had managed to unbuckle her son's seat belt before passing out.
Hamilton said he estimated only about 25 seconds elapsed between the time he ran to the Santor vehicle, and the time it was completely swallowed in flames.
Hamilton criticized the Virginia Department of Transportation for what he regards as a lack of signage warning approaching drivers of construction farther down the road.
"I don't know why whoever was working on that road didn't have advance warning flashing lights set up before traffic was stopped," he said. "I think that's one of the dumbest things. Whoever was responsible for those to be in position should have watched those people burn to death. They might have some different thoughts."
Edwin Carter, an assistant residency administrator at VDOT's Edinburg residency, said it would be "hard for us to comment" until seeing the state patrol's report on the accident.
Carter said someone tasked with monitoring the work of road contractors went to the accident scene after it was reported.
"He did respond to that. I'll need to talk to him to find out what he observed when he got there," Carter said.
Another I-81 motorist who said she saw the road ahead of her explode into a fireball as she came upon the accident said she agreed with Hamilton. Linda Meyer, of Leesburg, said the area needs more and better advance warning of the construction site
"I have to agree with him," she said when told of Hamilton's remarks. "It was pretty dark. I didn't see any flashers or signs that there was roadwork ahead."
Meyer added that she was traveling in the northbound lane opposite the side of the roadway in which the accident happened. She didn't know whether there were any signs in the immediate area of the accident.
Hamilton likened the psychological effects of his experience to that of a combat veteran from Afghanistan, Iraq or Vietnam.
"I've been taking sleeping pills myself," he said. "I'm telling you I wake up 15 to 20 times a night."
Meyer called Hamilton's actions heroic, but Hamilton can't shake the wrenching emotions he felt as he watched two people die before his eyes.
"I just wish I could have done more," he said.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org