SUV Hits Guardrail and Catches Fire on I-81

June 2, 2010

Interstate 81 has returned to normal following a fiery crash near exit 257 Tuesday evening.

Witnesses say an SUV crashed into a guardrail and flipped over on the northbound side. Black smoke billowed into the air as the interstate was shut down during the evening commute. Traffic was backed up about four miles.

State police say the crash happened at about 5:05 p.m. The left lane was re-opened to traffic shortly before 6:30 p.m.

Mark McLean says he was driving behind the SUV before it crashed. They were both going northbound. McLean says suddenly the SUV went across the median to the southbound side.

"It was pretty scary to see him come across that median and come back down. We didn't know where he was going to go," says McLean.

McLean says the car came back to the northbound side but didn't hit anyone else before it crashed into the guardrail.

Virginia State Police Trooper Bernard Boteler says Jerry Hawkins Jr. was driving the car. Police charged Hawkins with reckless driving. Witnesses say Hawkins only had minor injuries when he escaped from the SUV.

Hawkins didn't want to go on camera but said he fell asleep at the wheel and didn't know anything was wrong until he hit the guardrail.

"This guardrail was damaged previously. I understand it was in an accident a couple of weeks ago. Fortunately the guardrail was still in place," says Boteler.

McLean says even as the car was on fire, several people drove past.

"That could explode at any time, and they just kept driving by until the police finally got here and actually stopped them from coming through. But it didn't seem to phase them a bit to see a car overturned," says McLean.

State police say just as the interstate was clearing, another minor crash happened a few miles south.

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