DERRY, N.H. -- New Hampshire State Police said it would take investigators at least a week to determine the cause of a massive pileup between Exits 3 and 4 on Interstate 93 yesterday morning.
A nearly 60-car pileup shut down that northbound stretch of highway, triggering a massive rescue and cleanup effort that took emergency personnel from nine towns almost four hours to complete.
Firefighters had to climb over and around lines of smashed-up cars and trucks to give medical evaluations to more than 100 people. Only 15 people were ultimately transported to local hospitals for injuries that included broken legs and lacerations.
"I can tell you, we are very lucky no one was killed or seriously injured," state police Lt. Chris Aucoin said.
As police were trying to warn drivers to slow down, one state trooper saw a car sliding out of control toward him.
"He was out of his vehicle and putting flares out," Aucoin said. "It's one of those things that can happen out there. The car lost control, but it ultimately was able to right itself and came to a safe stop."
The crash that sparked the pileup occurred about 8:40 a.m. and involved a commercial truck and a charter school bus carrying a group of Massachusetts Boy Scouts.
That initial crash set off a flurry of 911 phone calls. Derry's dispatch center happened to have two dispatchers on duty because they were in the middle of a shift change. That proved to be fortunate because more crashes were underway as firefighters on their way to the scene.
"One dispatcher ended up taking all those calls. The other handled several other emergencies we were dealing with at the same time," said Jack Webb, a Derry fire battalion chief. Those emergencies included two chimney fires in Derry and Windham, and several medical calls.
The snowy weather drew many people north for a day of skiing and other recreational activities, police and fire officials said. Some 6 to 8 inches of snow fell on the region.
Many of those drivers ended up getting caught behind the first collision, then involved in numerous other crashes, state police said. Exit 3 north was closed to all but emergency traffic as the collisions continued and covered a larger stretch of highway. Southbound traffic continued to flow.
Some dive over guardrail to avoid being hit
Marshall DiCarlo, 30, was driving from Cape Cod for a day of snowboarding when he suddenly saw a field of brake lights in front of him. His car was near the end of the pileup, just north of Exit 3, but he wasn't the last to crash.
"When I came over the hill, I saw brake lights and at first I thought it was a plow truck slowing things down," he said. "Then I noticed people were spinning out so I tried to aim toward the guardrail. But everyone was stopping so fast, there was nothing you could do."
DiCarlo struck a vehicle in front of him, but dodged a Ford 150 pickup and a sport utility vehicle that collided head on. He got out of his Silver Acura and found himself in a group of people leaping from the roadway to avoid the cars sliding behind him, trying to stop.
"We were all stopped and we had gotten out of our cars when we saw the school bus coming toward us sideways," he said. "We all dove over the guardrail so we wouldn't get killed."
Derry battalion Chief Dave Hoffman said the first crew of fire and rescue trucks had to drive south on I-93 and turn at the highway turnaround at the Derry-Windham line so it could get to the back end of the pileup.
Hoffman said it became clear early on he was going to be charged with overseeing a massive rescue effort, which involved 17 ambulances from 14 area agencies. He organized the rescue effort by breaking up the crash scene into three sections.
The worst collision happened when a pickup truck crashed into the rear of a tractor-trailer. The truck's cab was flattened from going under the trailer, slamming the driver into a completely horizontal position on his back, Hoffman said.
"He was trapped between the seat and the steering column," Hoffman said. "He was just barely visible."
That collision was in the center of the accident scene. It took rescue workers about an hour to methodically peel away the remnants of the truck without further injuring the driver.
Salem firefighters helped, using a sled to haul an arsenal of extrication tools that included Sawzalls and other electric tools. The pickup truck driver sustained several lacerations and possibly injuries to his lower legs, but could speak with firefighters when he was finally freed from the grip of his mangled truck.
"He was in much better condition than we could have hoped for," Hoffman said.
Another serious crash involved a sedan wedged under the rear of a school bus. Firefighters had to cut open the sedan, but the driver emerged unhurt. Children inside the school bus were not injured as well.
Few hurt despite incident's severity
"Given the amount of vehicles and the amount of damage, it's amazing we only had to transport 15 people," Hoffman said.
Department of Transportation crews put up lighted signs, warning people to slow down and that the highway had been closed. State police sealed off Exit 3 so ambulances could come and go from the scene.
No detailed patient information was available yesterday for those who suffered broken limbs or lacerations. Aucoin said it would take his troopers at least a week to determine the cause.
Approximately 40 emergency workers responded from area towns, not including New Hampshire State Police, Salvation Army volunteers and private ambulance drivers. The towns responding yesterday included Derry, Nashua, Windham, Salem, Goffstown, Raymond, Pelham, Manchester and Methuen, Mass.
Rockingham Ambulance provided ambulances from Nashua. Chester, Atkinson and Bedford covered Derry's stations and responded to several other calls.
State police said yesterday's crash involved 46 cars, three buses, eight light trucks, and two tractor-trailers. One of those buses was used as a warming station for some of the drivers.Aucoin and others praised rescue workers for the speed and cooperation they showed in getting the roadway cleared and up and running in nearly four hours. The crash happened as the state continues to widen I-93 from Salem to Manchester, much of which is still a two-lane highway. In February, I-93 saw a pileup of 100 cars between Manchester and Concord that killed a driver.