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Two in ICU following rush-hour pileup

Two Port Orchard men are in the hospital with life-threatening injuries after a five-car pileup touched off by a pickup driving the wrong way into rush hour highway traffic.

A 49-year-old Port Orchard man is being investigated as the cause of the crash, which took place around 3:40 p.m. just west of the Tremont/State Route 16 interchange. Traffic in both directions was tied up for hours as police and fire officials tried to clean up the mess.

According to police accounts, the man apparently merged onto eastbound SR 16 at the Tremont exit but used the off-ramp instead of the on-ramp. He entered the highway head-on into oncoming cars and continued driving westbound in the eastbound lanes. He got approximately one-half mile up the road before plowing his blue pickup straight into white pickup, driven by a Puyallup man.

The blue truck then careened past the white truck, striking a Toyota and a Subaru station wagon. The Toyota then struck a green pickup that was trying to pass the crash in the open traveling lane.

The chaos immediately brought all eastbound traffic to a screeching halt and closed down that side of the highway for hours.

Fire District 7 spokeswoman Lisa Kirkemo said the severity of the crash called out most of the district’s available nearby personnel, as well as crews from Mason County 2. A total of 10 units, including two EMT units, responded to the scene.

“There were two major extractions that had to occur,” Kirkemo said. “The (blue) pickup was torn in half and the (Toyota) was crunched.”

Kirkemo said it took fire crews at least 30 minutes to cut the drivers of those two cars out of the wreckage. The two — the man who allegedly started the crash and a 44-year-old Port Orchard man — were immediately airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

To reach the victims quickly, two Lifeflight helicopters had to land on the highway itself, further distracting westbound drivers and causing backups there, as well.

The Puyallup man and the driver of the Subaru — a Bremerton man — were taken to Harrison Hospital via aid car. The Puyallup man was released on Saturday; the Bremerton man was released later on Friday.

As of Monday afternoon, the two Port Orchard men were still in the intensive care unit at Harborview. The 49-year-old was listed in serious condition with head, facial and multi-extremetal injuries. Hospital representatives said it was still too early to estimate whether the man would survive.

The 44-year-old was listed in critical condition with head, abdominal, leg and arm injuries. Hospital officials said he was in much more serious condition than the other man and would not comment on the likelihood of survival.

The driver of the green pickup, a Bremerton man, was uninjured although his truck sustained $4,000 and had to be towed away.

The Subaru also sustained $4,000 damage and needed to be towed. The other three vehicles were totaled.

Kirkemo said crews were on-scene until after 6 p.m. cleaning up debris from the crash.

Washington State Patrol is still investigating the collision and could not say what caused the man to merge into oncoming traffic. No traffic citations or criminal charges have yet been filed.

“We have several witnesses that indicate it’s something serious we have to look into — that it was something intentional,” said Washington State Patrol Lt. Helmut Steele. However, “he’s in such serious condition, we are somewhat limited with information.”

Steele would not speculate on the reason the man entered the highway in the wrong direction, but said no suicide note or similar indicator of intention has been found. He did say the man had a medical condition that could have contributed, but could not be sure.

“We like to talk to him — see where’s he been,” Steele said. That’s pretty standard.”

Steele did emphasize that everyone involved in the collision was wearing his seatbelt, which Steele credits with the lack of fatalities and the minor nature of most of the victims’ injuries. He encourages everyone to buckle up whenever their are in their cars.

“Here’s a good example — seatbelts save lives,” Steele said.

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