Police say a tractor-trailer driven by James A. Mills Jr., 45, of Myerstown, Pa., struck several vehicles Thursday that had slowed or stopped where paving was being done on Route 11 in Jefferson County. Five died in an SUV that burst into flames. A state transportation worker whose truck erupted in flames was hospitalized in critical condition, and a woman whose SUV flipped over died at a hospital.
Police said two other tractor-trailers were struck in the chain reaction but were only slightly damaged.
Mills was taken to a hospital for toxicology tests and released. The county district attorney's office is investigating whether any charges are warranted, said Trooper Jack Keller.
State police identified the driver of the SUV that exploded in flames as Laurie Dana, 42, an elementary school speech therapist from Lawrence, a rural town about 60 miles northeast of the crash site and 15 miles south of the Canadian border. Also in the vehicle were her two daughters, Caitlyn, 14, and Lauryn, 11, and her mother-in-law, Janet Dana, 69. The fifth victim was Shannon Planty, 14, a friend of Caitlyn.
The driver of the other SUV was identified as Maryann Gregory, 59, of Dickinson Center in Franklin County.
The crash happened near Fort Drum, 85 miles northeast of Syracuse. The site is on a straight, flat section of the two-lane road, the main east-west highway across four rural northern counties along the Canadian border. There were plenty of signs warning motorists that crews were working on the road, Keller said.
Michael Countryman told the Watertown Daily Times that he ran outside after hearing the loud crash and saw a vehicle engulfed in flames.
"On the other side of a tractor-trailer I saw a woman upside-down in her car; I reached in and felt a pulse - barely," he told the paper.
The vehicle's gas tank also was leaking, he said. Countryman said he broke out a side window of Gregory's Subaru with a hatchet. He said he and an emergency medical technician talked to the woman, but she didn't respond.
"He handed me scissors to cut the shoulder strap, then we picked her up and put her on a board," Countryman said.
Signage on the tractor-trailer indicates it is owned by MBM Customized Foodservice Distribution based in Rocky Mount, N.C. Keller said the truck was hauling a full load of yogurt from a plant in neighboring Franklin County. The vehicle was impounded for examination by police investigators.
Laurie Dana and her mother-in-law lived on the same stretch of Route 11 and frequently did things together, said Joyce Sheppard, who has lived two houses away from Laurie Dana for four years. The Dana family has a dairy operation and Sheppard's retired husband sometimes helps out.
"A very nice family," she said Thursday evening. "They were very friendly with us. She gave us a Christmas basket last year, which was nice."
Janet Dana's husband Don stopped by the Sheppard house to break the news to their neighbors.
"I'm sorry," Sheppard said. "We're overwhelmed."
Sheppard saw Laurie Dana drive by just ahead of her Thursday morning, on her way to pick up Janet Dana.
"I feel terrible because I saw them and didn't wave or anything," she said. "They were just going on their way."
Sheppard said Caitlyn and Lauryn were "beautiful little girls."
She expects the community will rally around the family.
"We're just trusting in the Lord," she said. "That's all we can do for now."