Wednesday, January 19, 2011
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Police identify victims of fatal I-81 crash

Claudia Cervantes, who worked for the Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce, was killed.

Claudia Cervantes of Radford died in Monday's crash.

Claudia Cervantes of Radford died in Monday's crash.

Police, fire and rescue crews respond to a 
tractor-trailer crash that involved a car and closed both southbound lanes of 
I-81 in Salem on Monday night. Traffic was backed up four miles.

Photos by Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

Police, fire and rescue crews respond to a tractor-trailer crash that involved a car and closed both southbound lanes of I-81 in Salem on Monday night. Traffic was backed up four miles.

Police, fire and rescue crews respond 
to a tractor-trailer crash that involved a car and closed both southbound lanes 
of I-81 in Salem on Monday night. Traffic was backed up four miles.

Click the photos to see larger versions.

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The two drivers killed in Monday night's crash on Interstate 81 in Salem were identified by state police Tuesday.

The wreck, which involved two tractor-trailers and a car, also injured four other passengers, including a toddler, and spilled 20 tons of sawdust onto the highway.

John Henry Murphy, 63, of Columbus, Ga., died at the scene after his southbound 18-wheeler struck an out-of-control tractor-trailer just past Exit 137, according to Virginia State Police spokesman Sgt. Rob Carpentieri.

Claudia Cervantes, 28, a Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce employee from Radford, was the second victim of the crash, Carpentieri said. She was driving south in a 2006 BMW coupe that also collided with the runaway truck. She also died at the scene, police said.

According to Carpentieri, the accident started when a northbound tractor-trailer driven by Danny Lee Heath, 49, of Atkins, Va., veered off the road.

"He ran off the left side of the road, crashed through the guardrail, went through the median and into the southbound lanes," Carpentieri said.

Heath's tractor-trailer jackknifed across the southbound lanes and was struck by Murphy's 18-wheeler, an empty bread truck, and by Cervantes' car. The force of the impact split Heath's trailer, which was carrying about 40,000 pounds of sawdust, and the cargo spilled onto the road.

Heath was taken to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital and hospital spokesman Eric Earnhart said Tuesday he had been discharged.

Charges in the crash have not been placed pending the outcome of the investigation.

Murphy's truck was carrying a passenger in the sleeper compartment, Phillip Paul Newbern, 50, of Phoenix City, Ala., police said. He also was taken to Roanoke Memorial and was listed in good condition Tuesday afternoon.

Carpentieri said the passengers in the BMW were identified as Cervantes' friend Claudia Fernandez Romero, 31, and Romero's 1-year-old daughter, who was in a child's seat in the back of the car. Earnhart said Romero was not a patient at Roanoke Memorial and her condition and the condition of her daughter were not available Tuesday night.

The lanes were cleared at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, according to Heidi Underwood of the Virginia Department of Transportation.

"It was almost 10 hours. There was some extensive cleanup," Underwood said.

Cervantes was communications director for the chamber of commerce and was the person who often greeted visitors and took phone calls.

"I've not only lost a colleague, I've lost a really good friend," said Peggy White, the Pulaski chamber's executive director, when reached by phone Tuesday. "She was like family, and one of the best people I've ever worked with."

A tearful White described Cervantes as "a loving, kind spirit" and said the chamber offices were filled with supporters Tuesday afternoon.

Monday's crash marked the second and third interstate fatalities in the Roanoke Valley in the past week. On Friday morning, a American Red Cross employee from Salem was killed on Interstate 81 in Botetourt County after his pickup truck ran underneath the back of a moving tractor-trailer. State police are still investigating that wreck.

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