Updated at: 12/20/2012 12:36 PM
By FRANK ELTMAN
(AP) SHIRLEY, N.Y. - All lanes of the Long Island Expressway reopened Thursday following a chain reaction of fiery crashes that killed one person and injured 33 others.
Police said a tractor-trailer smashed into several vehicles about 70 miles east of New York City on Wednesday, setting off a series of accidents that left nearly three 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 smoldered into the early evening, a fire official said.
The westbound lanes reopened before Thursday’s morning rush hour. Despite its remote location far from the city, the closure of the highway snarled traffic throughout Long Island well into Wednesday evening.
Police on Thursday identified the woman killed in the crash as 68-year-old Christa Zepf of Blue Point. She was driving a Toyota Camry eastbound on the expressway and was killed at the scene, police said. The injured were taken to three area hospitals.
The only other victim identified in the crash was 57-year-old Robert Murphy of Lloyd Harbor. Police said he was in critical condition at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital with a head injury.
The cause of the accident hadn’t been determined, and no charges had been filed related to it. A police spokeswoman said Thursday it was uncertain how long the investigation might take.
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 the expressway, which connects suburban Long Island neighborhoods with New York City.
Five fire departments responded to the scene as well as 19 Emergency Medical Services agencies, police said.
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 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."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)