A fiery three-car crash on Interstate 5 yesterday afternoon killed one person, injured five others and completely shut down northbound traffic for nearly three hours. But authorities said the...

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ARLINGTON — A fiery three-car crash on Interstate 5 yesterday afternoon killed one person, injured five others and completely shut down northbound traffic for nearly three hours. But authorities said the efforts of a few motorists near the scene probably saved the lives of some of those involved in the wreck.

The State Patrol is investigating why at 1:28 p.m., a Ford Explorer heading south on I-5 near Smokey Point drifted from the far-right lane across five lanes of traffic into the grassy median; the vehicle became airborne and slammed into two northbound vehicles, a Chevrolet Suburban and a Toyota pickup, said Trooper Lance Ramsay.

“This is the worst crash I’ve seen in 13 years,” Ramsay said.

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The front-seat passenger in the Suburban, a teenage girl from Bothell whose name was not released, died at the scene. The Suburban’s driver, a 47-year old Bothell woman, and another teenage girl who was a passenger in the vehicle were airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, as was the driver of the Ford Explorer, Juliann Odom, 22, of Bellevue.

The driver of the Suburban underwent surgery last night, a nursing supervisor said. Her passenger was in serious condition, and Odom was in satisfactory condition.

Two children who were in the Suburban — a 12-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl — were taken to local hospitals, Ramsay said.

It was unclear whether the driver of the Toyota pickup, Johnny Henton, 68, of Oak Harbor, was hurt.

The impact with the Suburban caused the pickup and the Explorer to burst into flames.

A semi-truck driver who stopped near the crash managed to tie a strap to the Suburban and drag the vehicle, which carried five people, away from the flames, Ramsay said.

“That event alone saved four lives,” Ramsay said.

When witnesses came upon the crash, they ran from their cars to free people from the two burning vehicles, Ramsay said. The collision shut down northbound I-5 traffic for four miles, from 116th Street in Marysville to the crash site. The freeway was completely reopened just before 7:30 p.m., Ramsay said.

Troopers weren’t able to collect statements from those injured in the crash, nor have they determined whether speed, drugs or alcohol were factors in the incident, Ramsay said.

Rosanne Cohn, of Camano Island, was driving north on I-5 at about 1:30 p.m. and saw a thick, black cloud of smoke from the crash billowing in the sky.

“It was horrific,” said Cohn, among the many motorists who sat through the hours-long backup.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

Christopher Schwarzen: 425-783-0577 or cschwarzen@seattletimes.com

Times staff reporters Diane Wright and Sara Jean Green

contributed to this report.