State: LIE drivers had ample warning

One person was killed and at least 32 injured -- two of them seriously -- in a fiery crash late Wednesday afternoon involving more than three dozen vehicles on the eastbound Long Island Expressway in Yaphank, police and emergency officials said. Videojournalists: Ed Betz and James Carbone (Dec. 19, 2012)

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Motorists had ample warning to slow down for a road project on the Long Island Expressway ahead of where a tractor trailer triggered a fiery pileup Wednesday, a state transportation official said Thursday.

The afternoon crash near Exit 68 killed one driver, Christa Zepf, 68, of Blue Point. Robert Murphy, 57, of Lloyd Harbor, suffered a head injury and was in critical condition at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital in East Patchogue, Suffolk police said.

Drivers who were on the LIE on Wednesday said there were few posted warnings before the crash occurred about three-quarters of a mile west of where motorists were slowed and funneled into one lane as workers made repairs to concrete.

But a state transportation official said motorists were given plenty of time to prepare for the lane shift.

"We know that there was a sign -- a construction-ahead sign, one mile before our project began," said Eileen Peters, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation's Long Island region.

Nine construction signs were posted before the work zone, including five at the one-mile marker west, Peters said.

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There was also a portable electronic sign west of the William Floyd Parkway interchange warning motorists to slow, Peters said. Workers had also set up barrels painted bright orange to warn motorists that traffic was being squeezed from three lanes into one, Peters said.

Thursday, Suffolk police said the reason for the pileup remained unclear, including whether lane restrictions or insufficient construction-zone warning signs played a role.

"All those factors are part of the investigation," Deputy Insp. Kevin Fallon said. We're looking at everything but no determination has been made as to the exact cause of the crash."

The tractor trailer loaded down with debris from superstorm Sandy ignited after crashing into several vehicles, sending thick, black smoke and a fireball skyward. Raymond Simoneau, 42, of Rockingham, Vt., the driver of the rig, suffered minor injuries. Simoneau was driving for Jewell Transportation Inc., of White River Junction, Vt. The company is a subcontractor for Looks Great Services of Huntington, which has a $20 million contract to clear trees, stumps and debris from Eisenhower Park in Nassau County, a county source said.

A person who answered the phone at Jewell Thursday declined to speak with a reporter.

Suffolk police said Thursday that no charges had been filed but they have turned over the case to the district attorney's office for review.

Danny Gershonowitz, an Eastport motorist who helped rescue crash victims, said he saw no warning markers.

"It took me by surprise," Gershonowitz recalled. "I didn't see any signs that the road was closed or going into one lane. I was moving fine and all of a sudden, it was a dead stop. I'm sure behind me, the same thing happened."

Stephanie Johnson, 47, of Oakdale, drove that same stretch a half-hour before the accident and said she saw no road closure warnings until she and motorists all around her had to brake hard, shortly after the William Floyd Parkway.

That was when she saw traffic cones cutting off three lanes to two. Further up, there was an electronic arrow on the right side, she said.

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"Even some of the light bulbs in that arrow weren't working," Johnson said. "They gave us no preparation to stop."

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