As the drivers crested the overpass at highway speeds just before dawn Sunday, they had no chance to stop once they could see what was below. One after another, cars and trucks skidded down a morass of black ice, gnarled steel, and shattered glass.
As many were getting an early start Sunday morning on the trek home after the holidays, freezing rain coated a patch of Interstate 290 in Worcester in sheer ice, sending about 65 vehicles, including three tractor-trailers, spinning and crashing into one another and leaving at least two people seriously injured, according to State Police.
In all, about 35 people were taken to local hospitals after the mammoth pileup on I- 290 near Exit 14, Sergeant Stephen Marsh said in a phone interview.
“The road was a sheet of ice,” he said. “It was like if you went skating with your kids. It was that bad.”
Marsh said the chain-reaction crash began around 6:40 a.m. just after a trooper saw the first cars skid into each other near the dip in the highway. The trooper, Erin McLaughlin, pulled to the side of the road, though there was no shoulder on the overpass, he said.
A few moments after McLaughlin got out of her cruiser, she saw vehicles that appeared to have lost control coming at her and the other cars at a high rate of speed.
“She had to dive back into her cruiser for cover,” Marsh said. “Then her cruiser got hit.”
McLaughlin, who was treated at a local hospital and released, had been responding to calls from elsewhere of vehicles sliding into each other.
“Whatever was falling seemed to create a flash freeze,” Marsh said. “We were starting to get calls from all over the place.”
Marsh said three State Police cruisers in the area had been hit as a result of the icy conditions. State Police reported crashes, spinouts, and treacherous conditions across Central Massachusetts early Sunday morning, including Fitchburg and Millbury. The Lowell Connector was closed for a while due to ice.
When Marsh arrived at the scene on I-290, he said it was hard to walk on the pavement because it was so slippery and there was so much damage, with fragments of destroyed cars nearly everywhere.
“I’ve seen road conditions this bad but never this many cars involved in a crash,” he said.
He said the vehicles, many of them totaled, were scattered along 1,500 feet of the highway, from the bottom of the incline to the top, where the oncoming drivers had a chance to see what was in front of them and stop before having to slam on their brakes.
“To navigate the scene, you had to walk over cars and duck beneath trucks,” Marsh said.
Some of the totaled vehicles were from out of state, with license plates from Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.
“There was a lot more traffic than usual for that time of morning on a Sunday,” he said, attributing it to the annual surge of vehicles on the road on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, traditionally the busiest travel day of the year.
One of the drivers involved, Gina Colone of Michigan, told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that cars in the eastbound lanes were flashing their lights at her as she drove west.
Just as she started to wonder why, she turned a curve and began to slide.
She said her Dodge minivan did not slow at all as the crash site came into view ahead.
“As soon as we got to the top of the hill, 40 cars in front of us. Stopped,” Colone told the paper “There was nothing I could do. We just slid down the hill.”
Her car was hit but she and her passengers did not suffer any serious injuries.
Marsh said he had little information about those who were taken to local hospitals, but he described two of the victims as having suffered potentially life-threatening injuries.
After the pileup, troopers closed I-290 to westbound traffic for nearly five hours, diverting traffic to city streets. The Worcester Regional Transit Authority assisted police in taking drivers and their passengers off the highway.
Many of the vehicles were towed to two nearby parking lots.Globe correspondent Anne Steele contributed to this report. David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.