By Frank McGurty
(Reuters) - A fuel tanker skidded off a Baltimore highway and exploded on Saturday morning, sending sheets of fire in the path of the approaching traffic and triggering a deadly 55-vehicle pileup on the ice-coated roadway, Maryland officials said.
The accident on Interstate 95, which occurred at about 5 a.m. (1000 GMT), left two people dead, including the driver of the fuel truck, said Lieutenant Kevin Ayd, spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police.
The fiery pileup was one of dozens of crashes in the Baltimore-Washington area as freezing rain slowly accumulated into an icy sheet on roadways in the early morning darkness.
A second multi-vehicle crash occurred at about the same time along Interstate 95 in Baltimore, part of a major north-south corridor along the U.S. East Coast. One person was killed in that accident when one of the drivers exited his vehicle and was struck by oncoming traffic.
Fatal crashes peppered other parts of the country hit with plunging temperatures and rain and snow. In Indiana, state police said in a statement on Saturday afternoon that the department has responded to more than 380 property-damage crashes, more than 60 injury crashes and four fatal crashes since 10 p.m. local time on Friday.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, two people died in separate crashes after their cars veered off icy roads and struck trees early on Saturday, local broadcaster WBTV reported.
In Missouri, state police said on Twitter that residents should consider if travel is "absolutely necessary" as temperatures hovered near freezing and forecasts called for more rain and snow. State police reported six deadly car crashes since Friday morning, though it was unclear how many were caused by foul weather.
In the 55-vehicle pileup in Baltimore, a bystander's video shows the skidding fuel truck hitting a barrier and flipping over in a gap between the north and southbound lanes. As the fireball spread, approaching cars and trucks can be seen attempting to stop but instead plowing into one another.
"I want to share my deepest condolences to those affected by this morning's multi-vehicle crash," Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said in a statement. "Today's icy road conditions remind us all that it is imperative to exercise extreme caution due to severe weather."
The crash forced the closure of the northbound lanes on the highway. Photos posted online showed dozens of emergency vehicles and tow trucks on the scene.
"We do not know when I-95 will be reopened," Ayd said. He urged motorists to stay off the road until conditions improve.
Warnings and advisories remained in effect throughout much of the country, as a strong cold front moves across the Eastern United States, the National Weather Service said.
Heavy snow and freezing rain will hit the northeast, Ohio Valley and Great Lakes regions while freezing rain shifts from the mid-Atlantic to portions of the northeast, the NWS said.
Warmer air moves into these areas on Sunday, turning the precipitation to rain, and strong thunderstorms are possible in the lower Mississippi Valley, the NWS said.
(Reporting By Frank McGurty; Editing by Franklin Paul and Chris Reese)