Art Ward of Rockford, Mich., slowed his van amid heavy Easter Sunday traffic congestion and parked on the left shoulder of the highway for safety.
His family was eager to get to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for a week's vacation, but fog had shrouded the steep descent off the Blue Ridge Plateau to the Carolina Piedmont on southbound Interstate 77 at Fancy Gap in Carroll County.
Ward got out of his van to move an obstacle ahead — a leaning sign that he couldn't easily go past without scraping his vehicle, a Dodge. As he was walking back to the driver's door, an out-of-control tractor-trailer came from behind.
"I watched him hit three cars before he hit us," Ward said. "I heard boom, boom, and then I could see him coming."
As Ward reached for the handle of the driver's door, the big rig rear-ended his van. The impact drove the van about two car lengths into the center embankment. Ward's wife and three kids were still inside. He was left standing in the road.
Three people on the side of the road were climbing the center embankment to get away from danger. But the advancing driverless van went over two of them, while the truck struck the third. One of pedestrians rolled and twirled, still standing, back past the van's windows. The Ward family thought it was Art Ward, fearing the worst as a red substance splattered the van's windows. His son "was thinking blood," Ward said.
In fact, it was red-tinted diesel fuel spewing from the truck.
A stricken Ward rushed after his vehicle.
"I just started chasing it," he said.
He reached the point where the truck had crushed much of the rear end, its front left tire almost on top of the seat position of Katelynn, his 16-year-old daughter.
Then Ward opened the sliding side door and looked in.
Everyone was alive. In the same instant, they learned he was alive.
"They were as surprised to see that I was there, when I opened the door, as I was to seem all of them OK," Ward said.
All had bruises but no serious injuries. Between 30 to 45 minutes later rescuers arrived, he said. They were in jumpsuits and running as if to conduct triage, he said.
"No one ever came to me or anyone in my family to say, 'Are you OK?' " he said. He guessed that was because they were all on their feet. Others were visibly injured.
The Wards could hear screams and cries. Nearby, vehicles were on fire. Unable to drive their van, they started walking along the southbound lanes through a maze of wrecked vehicles and working rescuers.
"It was I would say close to three-quarters of a mile that we had to walk through to get out," he said.
A Red Cross bus took them to an interchange and later to a hotel. Monday, they cleaned out their van, which was a total loss, endured a long wait to rent a car and drove to Myrtle Beach, arriving just before midnight.
It's too simplistic to blame the crash on bad driving as some have done, Ward said.
The road signs were inadequate, he said.
"Just a blinking yellow light [warning of fog ahead] was not enough to slow down," he said, noting that at that point no fog was visible. "It's like you drove around the corner and boom, there it was."
It was not made clear in advance "we were going to drive into zero visibility."
The wreck had lasting effects on Ward's family. All of the kids have received counseling as a result of the incident. Katelynn, who had turned 16 less than two weeks before the crash, declined to get her driver's license as planned.
"I don't need to drive. I don't need a license," she said, according to Ward.
His wife never wants to go back to the mountains, he said.
"It was probably one of the most terrifying things that ever happened to me or my family," he said.
A tense Vance Stover braked in Easter Sunday traffic.
He and his wife, Terry, were going home to South Carolina with their granddaughter from West Virginia, Lexi, who was joining them for a visit.
Stover hit thick white fog as he began the long descent on southbound Interstate 77 toward North Carolina.
He was afraid to slow down, fearful he would be rear-ended. But he couldn't maintain full highway speed because he couldn't see well enough.
A stopped blue vehicle appeared suddenly in his path. Stover tried to avoid it but slid into the car's left side.
"We hit a, I guess it was an SUV," Stover said. "I'll be surprised if I was going 40 mph."
Gathering his wits, Stover looked out the window. He saw a drip coming off another vehicle. Then he saw flames.
"We got to get out of this car right now," he announced to his wife and granddaughter.
Another vehicle came from behind and stopped beside his car, and its occupants began fleeing as well.
"We kind of hit doors as we were all trying to get out of the vehicles at the same time," he said.
They jumped a guardrail and fled up a runaway truck ramp.
Fire was spreading amid vehicle wreckage, and new vehicles were still coming upon the scene.
"There was all kind of cars crashing in there. It was like kaboom-bang, kaboom-bang. It just kept going," he said.
Some drivers veered onto the runaway truck ramp, forcing people to jump out of the way as Stover watched.
The blaze became "one big fire," Stover said. It burned part of Stover's car, damaged four other vehicles and incinerated a tractor-trailer. "We were all the way to the top of the truck ramp and we could feel the heat of it."
Aside from a small finger injury Stover had, no one with him was hurt. A trooper came through the crowd on the truck ramp and checked on people.
They decided to walk out.
"We had to walk through the carnage, tons of glass, diesel fuel, and all of the black soot and water from the fire to get to the bus. The smell of diesel, burning rubber, was absolutely horrible," Stover said.
His car, which sustained severe front-end fire damage, was totaled, but they salvaged most everything inside.
"We had box of cookies in the trunk of that car and not one of the cookies broke. I'm serious," Stover said.
Before he left the area, catching a ride to a family member's house in Mount Airy, N.C., Stover got some advice from a trooper: If he encounters fog next time he drives south on I-77, get off at Exit 8 and take Virginia 52 to the bottom of the mountain. The southbound lanes of Virginia 52 can't be used by tractor-trailers because of a weight restriction.
Stover plans to follow that advice. "If those fog signs are ever on again, I'm either going to park it or go down 52. I'll never take it again if it is foggy. I can guarantee that."
No stranger to tense situations, Anna Claugus, a young physician, stared ahead as the scene through her windshield got whiter and whiter with fog.
First, a tractor-trailer in front of her crashed.
She pulled her BMW sport utility vehicle to the left side of the road and stopped.
In her rearview mirror she saw a gut-wrenching image: Another big rig was coming.
Two impacts jolted the 28-year-old Claugus and her husband, Nicholas Romero, a 31-year-old software engineer, who were traveling home to the Charlotte, N.C., area after visiting family in Ohio.
"The semi hit us square in the back, which lodged us under the semi in front of us," Claugus said.
They were wedged in so far, the left rear wheel assembly of the truck — four huge tires in two pairs — was on top of their car.
Her husband climbed through the broken windshield to escape. She opened her door and got out. Abandoning their crated Jack Russell terrier in the rear seat, she and Romero fled in fear.
They had no phone, no wallet, no dog. He had a cut on his head. Both had muscle strains.
But there was no good way out. The couple made their way along a steep, wet hillside littered with loose rocks alongside Interstate 77. Explosions were going off, as tires of big rigs blew apart in a fire engulfing several vehicles not 50 feet away.
The thought crossed her mind: "Was our car going to catch on fire?"
The dog? "To be honest, I wasn't convinced that he had survived," she said.
They passed horrific scenes. She saw a pickup truck with a driver who appeared to not be moving.
"We kept running," she said.
They walked free of the crash zone and, after several hours, returned.
On the walk back, the question on their mind was soon answered. A fireman had found their dog alive, freed it and given it to a family. Claugus and Romero ran into the family and were reunited with Remington, who was uninjured.
They eventually connected with family members who ferried them on to Charlotte. Once home, more good news arrived: Crews who were removing vehicles from the wreck turned Claugus' car on its side to separate it from the truck, and her camera fell out. A volunteer firefighter found it and, using clues visible in the pictures inside, returned it to Claugus.
Since the crash, she drives differently.
"I used to probably be a lead-foot driver. I'm very cautious and much slower," she said.
When John Spetrino finally returned to his Grand Marquis sedan inside the wreckage of a multivehicle crash on Interstate 77, it was right where he left it.
Except there was a tractor-trailer sitting on top of it.
"I felt lucky to be alive," said Spetrino, a 48-year-old water systems superintendent from Willoughby, Ohio.
One moment he and his wife, Jacqui, were driving to Florida. The next moment blinding fog forced him to stop on the left side of the highway.
"It was just too foggy to see anything," Spetrino said. "I just saw brake lights."
He pulled to the shoulder, hit a culvert and stopped. Two vehicles from behind sideswiped the Spetrino vehicle, sending glass bits onto Jacqui Spetrino.
The Spetrinos got out, climbed a hillside in the median and went looking for a safe place to stand.
Spetrino moved so fast, he's not even sure he turned his lights or engine off.
"We just wanted to get out," he said.
When the truck came along a short time later, they were long gone. It drove over, or was pushed onto, the Marquis and stopped.
Spetrino isn't bitter or angry over his car being sandwiched or about the other big rigs that crashed in the incident.
"I know those tractor-trailers can't stop. I think they did the best job that they could not to do any more damage," he said.
"That's a lot of weight assuming they were loaded. … I had a hard time stopping."
The couple left Virginia in a rented vehicle and reached Orlando the next day as planned.