About 50 vehicles including an ambulance piled up in a massive chain-reaction crash in a snowstorm on Interstate 90 on Thursday, killing one motorist and shutting down the highway for nearly 15 hours, officials said.
Police closed about a 10-mile section of I-90 from just east of Erie to the New York border in both directions after the 12:45 p.m. accident. Crews worked through the wintry night to clear the wreckage and the interstate reopened shortly after 3 a.m. Friday, state police said.
Motorists said blowing snow created whiteout conditions on the highway near Lake Erie's southeastern shore, and state police said 22 tractor-trailers were among the vehicles involved in the massive tangle.
"It all happened very quickly," said Cpl. Mark Zaleski, a state police spokesman.
"There were cars and trucks opened like with a can opener," said Joseph Weindorf, the Erie County public safety director. "I can't believe there were people who survived."
Firefighters had to cut away part of the cab of a rental van to free the female driver and her dog. The van was wedged between two tractor-trailers, its contents strewn about the median.
An eastbound tractor-trailer attempting to avoid the rental van slammed into the south wall of a bridge and wound up with its cab hanging over the bridge. The driver got out uninjured, an official said.
Several tanker trucks were involved and a hazardous materials crew was dispatched to the scene, but the trucks were not damaged and remained upright, said Maria Finn, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.
One motorist was pinned between a box truck and a tractor-trailer hauling automobiles and was killed, said Erie County Coroner Lyell Cook. Authorities had not released the victim's identity.
A number of people sustained minor injuries, Finn said.
Southbound lanes of Interstate 79, which intersects with I-90 at Erie, also were closed for several hours because of accidents south of Erie.
Doctors from St. Vincent Health Center in Erie were dispatched to help emergency crews treat victims and free them from wrecked cars on I-90, hospital spokeswoman Cyndy Patton said.
"We sent one of our emergency room physicians along with a trauma surgeon from Hamot (Medical Center) up to the scene," Patton said. "It's more to assist in extrication. They're just having trouble because of the pileup getting ambulances in and out of there."
St. Vincent and Hamot said they had a total of 13 injured people from the I-90 accident plus two from crashes on I-79. None of the injuries appeared life-threatening.
Ann Bloxdorf, deputy director of public safety for Erie County, said the I-90 accident occurred between the Wesleyville and Harborcreek exits just east of Erie.
One vehicle in the crash was an ambulance carrying patients, Zaleski said.
State police said shelters were set up at a fire station and a church to help stranded motorists. They said the fire station shelter was being used, but didn't know how many were taking refuge there.
The Erie area got 4 to 8 inches of snow by Thursday night as the storm dumped snow across western Pennsylvania, and was expected to get 1 to 4 inches more overnight, according to the National Weather Service.