A tractor trailer hauling debris from superstorm Sandy slammed into multiple vehicles on the Long Island Expressway Wednesday afternoon, causing a fiery, 35-vehicle wreck that killed one driver and injured at least 33 people.
The crash closed portions of the Island's main commuter artery at Exit 68 in Yaphank at the peak of rush hour and into Wednesday night, emergency officials said.
After the first collision at about 2:30 p.m., a massive fireball ignited and cast thick, black smoke and flames into the sky. Cars, trucks and tractor trailers -- some on fire with occupants struggling to get free -- were scattered across the LIE.
At a news conference Wednesday night, Suffolk police spokesman Insp. Kevin Fallon said a Blue Point woman, 68, was pronounced dead at the scene after her Toyota Camry was involved in the crash. Her name was not released Wednesday night. Ridge Fire Chief John Mirando said that her car had been hit twice -- once head-on by a vehicle that had spun out of control, and also by another car that rear-ended her.
The driver of the tractor trailer, Raymond Simoneau, 42, of Rockingham, Vt., was not injured in the crash. He was heading to Riverhead with a load of debris from Sandy after picking it up in Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, Fallon said.
About three-quarters of a mile to the east of the initial crash, the eastbound road was being reduced to one lane due to construction, officials said.
Witnesses described a chaotic scene in the moments after the pileup. In an instant the roadway was transformed, with drivers and passengers coming to the aid of injured motorists.
"It was the worst scene that I've ever seen in my life," said Joseph Williams, whose 46 years of emergency service included time as a FDNY firefighter and now commissioner of Suffolk County's Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services agency. "We had vehicles that were on fire. We had trucks that were on fire. We had a lot of people still trapped in their cars. We had a lot of citizens that weren't injured helping other citizens."
Police said the crash was triggered by Simoneau's debris-carrying tractor trailer colliding with another eastbound vehicle, igniting the fire. The tractor trailer then collided with other vehicles and trailing vehicles slammed into the flaming wreck, witnesses and authorities said.
Two of the three most seriously injured, a 37-year-old man and a 20-year-old woman, were airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital, officials said. The third victim, a 57-year-old man, was in serious condition Wednesday night, police said. The other 30 injured crash victims went to different hospitals, including Riverhead's Peconic Bay Medical Center, St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson and Patchogue's Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Center, said Fallon. Their conditions were not released Wednesday night.
Inside the Brookhaven emergency room, a man paced nervously and said his daughter was in the pileup, although he said little about how it happened.
"I know she's fine. Had a couple of bruises," said the man, who would not give his name.
The trail of wreckage spanned close to a half-mile of the LIE, from the exit to southbound William Floyd Parkway to the northbound parkway exit, Williams said. The commercial truck, the easternmost vehicle affected, came to a rest on the expressway, just above the northbound lanes of William Floyd Parkway, he said. Hours after the crash as the sun went down, the tractor trailer was still smoldering near where it tore through the other vehicles, many of them reduced to heaps of twisted metal.
Fire chief Mirando said an excavator from the Brookhaven landfill was expected to arrive late Wednesday night to scoop out the burning debris from the tractor trailer. "We'll start breaking it apart and pulling it off the truck," he said. "Then we have to wet it all down."
Danny Gershonowitz saw the aftermath of the crash in his rearview mirror. He said he had been on the eastbound LIE -- just before the accident -- when he hit his brakes hard as three lanes of traffic suddenly merged into one. To his right, he then saw two cars stopped on the shoulder and one of the occupants "went to the ground and was praying," Gershonowitz said.
In his mirror Gershonowitz saw flames and he later realized it was a truck on fire. Along with several other motorists, Gershonowitz said he ran about 75 yards back and tried to pry open the driver's door of the burning truck. The door was jammed with the driver trapped inside.
"Me and a couple of other bystanders were yelling to him to either kick the door open or the windshield open," Gershonowitz said. "We got his attention -- I don't know if he was groggy or shocked -- but eventually he kicked out the windshield."
They helped the driver, who did not have any apparent injuries, to the median guardrail, Gershonowitz said.
"Pretty soon, the whole front of the truck was engulfed in fire, and that's when people started backing away," he said. "The police came and asked everybody to run and get out of the way, because I guess they thought it would explode."
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