Long-haul trucker Jim Swett should have been lapping up the sun and enjoying his retirement in Arizona. Instead, he and nearly a dozen other passing motorists rushed to help around...

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Long-haul trucker Jim Swett should have been lapping up the sun and enjoying his retirement in Arizona.

Instead, he and nearly a dozen other passing motorists rushed to help around 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, when a fiery crash on northbound Interstate 5 near Smokey Point killed one young woman and injured seven other people, closing that side of the freeway for several hours.

The State Patrol still is investigating why a Ford Explorer heading south on I-5 drifted across five lanes of traffic and through a grassy median, slamming into two northbound vehicles — a Chevrolet Suburban carrying a family of five, and a Toyota pickup with two men inside.

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The three-car pileup took the life of an 18-year-old woman. The Snohomish County medical examiner has not released her name pending scientific identification and notification of relatives.

Her employer, Elizabeth Routliffe, remembered her for her devotion to abused and abandoned animals and her close bond with her siblings.

The woman’s mother, who was driving the Bothell family’s Suburban, was in serious condition last night at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. The deceased’s 15-year-old sister also was in serious condition, in the hospital’s intensive-care unit. Two other siblings, a 9-year-old girl and 12-year-old boy, both were in stable condition at Providence Everett Medical Center’s Colby campus.

Swett used a long crowbar to pry open the Suburban’s back door and helped rescue the two youngest children.

Investigators have been unable to speak with the driver of the Ford Explorer, Juliann Odom, 22, of Bellevue, to determine the cause of the crash. She was in satisfactory condition at Harborview last night, a nursing supervisor said.

“She’s been intubated after inhaling a lot of smoke and flames at the accident scene, so we haven’t been able to pinpoint the particular reason why she drifted through the median,” said State Patrol Trooper Lance Ramsay.

In the Toyota pickup were Johnny Henton, 68, and Stephen Doll, 68, both of Oak Harbor, who were taken to area hospitals with non-life-threatening injuries, Ramsay said.

Swett, 68, was headed home to Sedro-Woolley when he saw what he described as “an inferno.” A driver for Tact Trucking, he’d taken to the road again last summer after having been retired for five years.

Swett parked his rig about 100 feet from the wreckage, where the Toyota and Ford Explorer caught fire, sending plumes of smoke into the air. He grabbed his fire extinguisher to fight the flames and joined others in pulling Odom from the Explorer, he said.

He and other men then rushed to the Suburban, where he said they found the mother inside severely injured and her 18-year-old daughter with no pulse in the front passenger seat.

Swett could hear children crying in the back of the crushed Suburban and rushed to pry open a door.

I-5 crash

Anyone who saw the collision or helped rescue those involved is asked to call State Patrol Trooper Lance Ramsay at 360-658-2588.

“When I saw the children in peril, it just hurt me right in the heart,” he said last night from his truck as he hauled a load of plants to an Oregon nursery. “I knew we had to do whatever it took to get them out of there.”

Swett said he saw his own grandson in the terrified faces of the children. He didn’t want other grandparents or parents to feel what his family members did when they lost 15-year-old Brandon Swett in a car crash during a family reunion five years ago.

And he feared the Suburban, which was so close to the flames that the paint was bubbling, also would catch fire, which could have proved fatal for those still trapped inside. He and an off-duty Snohomish County sheriff’s deputy hooked a tow line from the truck to the Suburban and dragged it 30 feet from the burning wreckage.

As he and others held up their empty fire extinguishers, other southbound truckers stopped to offer their fresh ones, Swett said.

“If there’s any heroes, there’s a whole slew of them,” Swett said. He and his son, Thomas Swett, say they wish they could have spared the Bothell family’s pain of losing the 18-year-old.

Last night, hundreds of online pals from the Web site where she worked mourned the young woman, who volunteered nearly 40 hours a week for the site, aimed at increasing awareness of abandoned and abused animals.

“We’re all just horribly devastated,” said Routliffe, creator of the Canada-based Web site. “She was a caring, wonderful girl who was so dedicated to our Web site and to her brothers and sisters.”

Rosario Daza: 206-464-2393 or rdaza@seattletimes.com