As speeding vehicles dash across Cecil County on I-95, Our Lady of the Highways watches peacefully over the hectic scene from a tranquil hillside in Childs, MD. The guardian of travelers, a 14-foot high white marble statue of the Virgin Mary, was placed there after a massive pileup took three lives one foggy October morning in 1968.
Hearing crash after crash, seminarians, brothers, and priests from the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales who were starting their morning routine rushed toward the Interstate. The first outside aid to reach victims, they tended the injured and dying while waiting for emergency crews to make their way through the darkness. Moved by the sad tragedy that took place that unforgettable autumn day, the Oblates erected the shrine on the grounds of the novitiate in 1973. In addition to serving as a memorial for the three victims, the patron of travelers reminds people to say a prayer before heading out on a trip and drive safely.
Here is the story of that dreadful day. Thick fog made travel hazardous in the pre-dawn hours of October 2, 1968. As drivers on the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway made their way carefully across the top of the Chesapeake, they suddenly encountered treacherous conditions about a mile west of the Elkton exit. A swath of almost impenetrable, unmoving mist hugged the ground creating havoc as it cut visibility to 10- to 12-feet. Vehicles rushing into this dangerous spot suddenly started braking, but one car hit the bridge abutment. That triggered a chain-reaction as 20 vehicles quickly piled up in the northbound lane about where it crosses Blue Ball Road. Several of the crumpled cars were smashed between tractor-trailers.
Cecil County Fire Headquarters received the urgent call from the Oblates and the alarm went out on the public safety radio system at 6:20 a.m. While they waited for fire and rescue services seminarians and priests comforted the injured and dying. Once the first arriving emergency responders assessed the carnage, a general alarm was issued for all available Cecil County ambulances and nearby Delaware units. Fourteen tractor trailers and at least six cars were strewn across lanes of the toll road while police found the fog so thick that they had to probe for victims. Four rescue units and four engines also sped to the wreckage to extricate trapped victims, support EMS crews, and suppress any fire.
When word of the accident was flashed to Union Hospital, Rusty Brandon, the night supervisor, activated the disaster plan. Since this was the era before advanced life support, shock trauma centers, and helicopters all the injured were routed through the local emergency room. Extra doctors and nurses rushed to the medical facility to help the night-shift cope with the disaster. Before the last injured person walked through the door at 8:30 a.m. the medical staff was treating eight patients.
Three people died on that stretch of the turnpike before the sun came up at 7:03 a.m. that dark Cecil County morning. It was later reported that the discharge from a nearby paper-mill contributed to the sharp, sudden drop in visibility. As for Cecil County Emergency Services, they were ready when the call about an accident on the turnpike required massive use of manpower and equipment from all areas of the county and nearby points. The central control system for dispatching police, fire and EMS was just six years old, but it proved vital in coordinating the joint effort to such a serious accident.
The Oblates erected the memorial in 1973. Drivers who happen to glance over toward the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales may wonder about the “stone lady” as truckers call her. She is the patron of travelers, watching over the Interstate.
Click here for a related piece on a song about “Our Lady of the Highways/”