Police blame speed for a disastrous pileup on Interstate 77 in March that killed three people and injured 25, but none of the nearly 100 drivers involved will be charged with a traffic offense or crime.
A Virginia State Police investigation revealed that "despite the posted fog advisories, vehicles were traveling too fast for conditions," said spokeswoman Corinne Geller.
As recently as last month, police, in consultation with prosecutors, were still probing the deaths of three motorists — two passengers and a driver in separate vehicles. However, the investigation is complete and no charges are going to be filed, state police 1st Sgt. Mike Musser in Galax said Thursday.
Southbound I-77 in Carroll County heads from the Blue Ridge Plateau at Fancy Gap down the side of Sugarloaf Mountain toward the exit for Mount Airy, N.C. Drivers drop from 2,600 feet in elevation to less than 1,500 feet in seven miles. Wind and blinding fog can make driving hazardous in either direction. The posted speed limit is 65 mph.
On March 31, the area atop the plateau around Hillsville was calm with traffic moving at about 70 mph, and heavy at nearly 1,000 vehicles an hour. Drivers had great visibility — about a mile, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.
The message board south of Hillsville for southbound traffic was illuminated: FOG AHEAD ADJUST SPEED FOR WEATHER CONDITIONS. WATCH FOR SLOW OR STOPPED VEHICLES.
As drivers began the descent, visibility dropped to 167 feet, or about two seconds headway for a vehicle going the speed limit.
Many drivers struggled to see, leading 95 vehicles to become involved in crashes. About half were so badly damaged they had to be towed from the scene.
Musser was eating lunch with his two college-age sons after church when he learned of the incident. Sliding into his uniform, he took off for the scene, driving south on I-77 — the same direction the wrecked vehicles had been going. He parked at the rear of the crash.
A veteran of multiple-vehicle crashes on I-77, Musser first wanted to get an idea of the number of dead, severely injured and trapped motorists and the number of vehicles. There wasn't room to thread his patrol car through the wreckage — a maze of cockeyed vehicles with glass, metal and other debris all over — so he got out and ran.
"We basically just grab a legal pad and just start down the middle of it," he said.
When he reached the other end of the wreckage about a mile from where he'd started, he turned around and hustled back to set up a command post at his patrol car. Fifteen troopers responded, in addition to about 60 fire and rescue personnel.
The situation was urgent. A tractor-trailer had struck a car, leading to a fuel leak and a fire that spread to nearby crashed vehicles, Musser said. Four or five vehicles were on fire, and police suspected people might be trapped. But fire trucks couldn't get in, and wreckers had to first drag some vehicles out of the way.
No one was trapped, however.
A closer examination of the wreckage later revealed not one giant crash, but scores of crashes. The largest involved 11 vehicles. Police wrote 24 wreck reports in which "the date is all the same, the time is all the same, the county is all the same," Geller said.
The rescue lasted hours. By evening "a massive debris field" remained with residue from burned-out vehicles, bits of glass, thousands of bolts and other junk. Loaders and truck-mounted power brooms cleaned the southbound lanes until shortly before 10:30 p.m., when police reopened the road, Musser said.
State police believe drivers were guilty of driving too fast for conditions or following too closely. However, in the immediate aftermath of the crash, rather than put energy into writing tickets, police concentrated on rescuing victims and preparing to reopen the road, Musser said. There was too much confusion during the incident, and too many higher priorities, to fully diagram events or assign blame, according to Musser.
If authorities had devoted time to ticketing, the road would have been blocked much longer than the nine or so hours it was closed, Musser said. It would have been impossible, or nearly impossible, to completely reconstruct the incident afterwards, he said.
"Being able to show exactly who hit who in what order, it's a whole different ballgame a lot of times" compared with investigating a routine crash, Musser said.
As a result, no complete picture of who did what exists in police files. In a third of the crash reports, the names and addresses of some drivers are listed as "unknown."
However, authorities analyzed whether one or more drivers should be charged with manslaughter.
Police gave a report to Carroll County Commonwealth's Attorney Nathan Lyons, who declined to comment for this story.
Musser said the fog and low visibility, which he called an "act of God," and the profusion of collisions worked against the development of a successful manslaughter charge. Speaking hypothetically, he said a person accused of vehicular manslaughter could in such a case reply with, "Yeah, my vehicle hit it, but I was hit by these other two and they knocked me into it."
Even though no one has been charged with a traffic or criminal offense, "that has no bearing on insurance settlements or civil matters," the sergeant said.
Civil courts provide a venue for recovery, according to Musser, who already has heard from various attorneys.
As shown by a more-than-70-vehicle wreck in the same general area in 2010, the crash victims could be in court for years.
Ryan Morrissette of North Carolina was a passenger in a pickup, riding home from a construction job in Roanoke, according to a lawsuit he filed in late 2012. On a fog-shrouded southbound I-77, the driver rear-ended another vehicle and stopped.
An injured Morrissette stepped out.
Just then, a third vehicle rear-ended the pickup, throwing Morrissette to the ground, the suit says.
As he got up, a tractor-trailer slammed into the wreckage, killing Morrissette's travel companion and inflicting a third set of injuries on Morrissette, the suit says.
Morrissette is now in bad shape, afflicted by panic attacks whenever he sees a big rig in traffic and other after-effects of multiple physical and emotional injuries, the suit says.
The case is pending in Carroll County Circuit Court with no trial date set.
Judging by its position at the front of the wreckage, a crashed tractor-trailer looked to be the cause of — or at least a major factor in — the Easter Sunday crash, witnesses said.
But Virginia State Police 1st Sgt. Mike Musser said the big rig with a white trailer didn't cause the crash on Interstate 77 at Fancy Gap. Police do not know what driver did.
That's how it always is, he said. Each of the multivehicle crashes in that area over many years involved a driver or drivers who left the scene, he said.
"The originating vehicle in all the pileups that we have had down there has never remained at the scene," Musser said. Witnesses consistently report that the originating vehicle simply disappeared into the fog, he said.
That said, tractor-trailers had a big impact in the March 31 crash. All three deaths were occupants of passenger vehicles that collided with tractor-trailers. Police have not charged any drivers, however.
Of 95 vehicles involved in wrecks, least 13 of them — or 14 percent — were large trucks or tractor-trailers, crash reports show.
The Sunday the crash occurred was actually a light day for truck traffic on the road. For 2012, tractor-trailers represented about 28 percent of total traffic in that area, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.