Crews on the scene spent most of Friday trying to clear the debris from a passenger car, U-Haul truck, and tractor-trailer that look like they exploded on the southbound lanes of I-95 near the Wilson and Nash County lines.
Officials say 22-year-old Allison Rothenburg of Jacksonville, N.C. was driving the U-Haul when she pulled over to check the load. Her fiance, Shannon Scott, 19, and Rothenburg's two children followed behind in a car.
Investigators say around 9:45 p.m. Thursday, just as the vehicles were about to leave the shoulder, a tractor-trailer smashed into them, pinning the car in the middle. The car was left in three pieces. Parts of the U-Haul went across the highway and into some woods nearby.
Rothenburg survived, but her children, 2-year-old Christopher and 3-year-old Kelsia -- did not. Scott, of Mechanicsville, Va., also died.
"It's probably one of the worst accidents that I've ever seen or investigated," says trooper R.W. Lamm.
The accident was devastating, and the victim devastated. "She was kind of a young girl, and she just went hysterical," says witness Doug Stephens. "I don't think she really knew the kids were dead at the time."
Troopers say they spent some time trying to help Rothenburg settle down. "They had her over there sitting down, trying to control her," Lamm says. "She was a little bit out of control."
State troopers say there is a lesson everyone can learn from this accident about when to use the shoulder.
"If that means getting in the grass, then get on the grass but get as far away from that travel lane as possible," says trooper W.B. Vaughn. "The name of the game is getting away from the highway."
Troopers say each time someone uses the shoulder, he puts his life in the hands of every driver on the road.
Vaughn says the highway is packed with careless drivers, tired drivers and drivers who may have had too much to drink.
"The driver may be distracted, may be getting tired, and they take their eyes off the road for a moment. They look up, all they see are a set of taillights, and they just assume it's a car moving ahead of them," Lamm says. "By the time they run into them, it's too late."
Rothenburg is listed in fair condition at Wilson Memorial Hospital. The driver of the tractor-trailer, twenty-six-year-old Christopher Vance of Branson, Mo., has been treated and released.
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