GREENWICH TWP., Pa. - A fiery chain-reaction crash killed three people and closed a stretch of Interstate 78 in Berks County for several hours Monday, officials said.
The coroner's office has tentatively identified two of the victims, but their names have not been released.
Two of the deceased were in the same car -- a driver and a passenger -- and the other victim was a driver of another of the seven vehicles involved.
The accident was reported around 1:15 p.m. Monday on the eastbound side of the highway, at milepost 41.4 in Greenwich Township, not far from the border between Berks and Lehigh counties.
A tractor trailer rear-ended a car as the truck attempted to pass a slowing box truck in the right lane, state police said. That triggered the chain-reaction crash involving those three vehicles and four others, some of which burst into flames.
"I was scared. My heart. I'm still scared. It was like, 'Wow.' I've never seen anything like that before," said Stivros Kiprizlis.
Kiprizlis told 69 News he grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to help the victims trapped inside their burning vehicles.
"Anytime something like that happens that close to you, realizing there's people in there that have died, it's just a very sobering experience," said Aaron Lasala. "My heart goes out to their families."
A PennDOT camera just west of the scene, at the I-78 and Route 737 interchange, showed flames and a thick plume of black smoke rising above the highway.
Emergency crews from both Berks and Lehigh counties responded to the scene, which spread along a few hundred feet of the eastbound lanes.
The fire was quickly put out; however, the damage remains.
The eastbound lanes of I-78 were closed at milepost 35 (Lenhartsville, Berks County), until around 10:30 p.m.
The westbound lanes were closed at milepost 45 (New Smithville, Lehigh County) for much of the afternoon before reopening around 5:30 p.m.
State police said the highway was closed for several hours to allow crews to investigate the accident and remove the charred wreckage.
The driver of the tractor trailer and was transported to a hospital for treatment of chest pain and routine blood testing, state police said. Eleven others were also taken to the hospital, but none suffered serious injuries, officials said.
Police told 69 News that the tractor trailer driver will likely face at least a summary offense, but that it will take a few weeks for all of the necessary and relevant information to be collected and analyzed, at which point citations and charges could be filed.
"Based on physical evidence, witnesses, what they're telling us, then we'll be able to piece this thing altogether about what happened," said Tpr. David Beohm, Pennsylvania State Police.Images: Aftermath of fiery crash on Interstate 78
Allentown, PA 18102