A tractor-trailer smashed into several vehicles on a major highway on Wednesday afternoon, setting off a chain reaction of fiery crashes, killing one person and injuring 33 others, police said.
The accident on the Long Island Expressway, about 70 miles east of New York City, left at least two dozen vehicles strewn across several hundred yards of the eastbound lanes. At least three vehicles, including the tractor-trailer, which was carrying storm debris, caught fire and were still smoldering into the early evening, a fire official said.
A 68-year-old Blue Point woman, who was driving a Toyota Camry eastbound on the expressway, died at the scene, police said. The injured were taken to three area hospitals.
The tractor-trailer driver, 42-year-old Raymond Simoneau, of Rockingham, Vt., was heading eastbound when the truck struck a number of cars, triggering a pileup involving 35 vehicles, Suffolk County police said. He was uninjured, police said.
A car involved in the initial collision with the tractor-trailer was incinerated beyond recognition, with its tires punctured and paint burned off its body. Some SUVs and cars suffered extensive damage while others appeared to have barely a scratch; all were haphazardly stopped across the highway, which is up to six lanes in parts.
Police Deputy Inspector Kevin Fallon said the accident occurred at about 2:40 p.m. on a bright, sunny day. He said the eastbound lanes of the roadway, which connects suburban Long Island neighborhoods with New York City, were expected to remain closed until Thursday morning.
The westbound lanes were expected to reopen before the Thursday morning rush hour.
Five fire departments responded to the scene as well as 19 Emergency Medical Services agencies, police said.
The cause of the accident hadn't been determined, and no charges had been filed related to it. Investigators were working to sort out the sequence of events that led to the accident, on an isolated stretch of road on the rural part of eastern Long Island, Fallon said.
"Anybody rolling up on this scene you would think there would be definitely more than just one fatality," said John Mirando, chief of the Ridge Fire Department. "It's just lucky that it's only one, but it could have been a lot worse."
Driver Danny Gershonowitz told Newsday that he was ahead of the accident when he saw two cars stop on the road shoulder.
"The gentleman to the right of me went down to the ground and was praying. When I looked in my rear view mirror, there was smoke and flames coming out," he said.
He said he and others got the attention of the truck driver and helped him as he climbed out of his smoking vehicle.
"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."