A drowsy truck driver plowed his out-of-control tractor-trailer into nine vehicles, pinning some against a Dunkin' Donuts sign, in a "horrifying" crash that claimed the lives of two people and injured several others in Berks County, Pennsylvania.
The driver of the big rig -- identified by Berks County District Attorney John Adams as 50-year-old Steven Bernier -- was charged Wednesday with two counts of homicide by vehicle, nine counts of aggravated assault, two counts of involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, speeding and driving violations.
"This accident today was caused by a tractor-trailer driver who dozed off and traveled into the opposing direction of traffic and caused the horrific accident you all saw today," Adams said. "This tractor-trailer basically plowed through and caused this."
Rescuers continued to work to free trapped passengers more than three hours after the crash occurred on the 8000 block of Allentown Pike (U.S. Route 222) in Maidencreek Township, Pennsylvania, not far from Route 73, officials said.
Jeremy Augustine, 23, of Emmaus, Pennsylvania and Jane Harakel, 32, of Topton, Pennsylvania died in the crash, according to the Berks County Coroner's Office.
"It just seemed like it didn't stop," said Jake Gast, who along with his two co-workers, 50-year-old Roger Hiler and 26-year-old Nick Bowker, were inside one of the cars that was struck. "When it was over I was sitting there not knowing whether I was dead or alive."
Gast, 35, Hiler and Bowker are engineers from Michigan who were in Berks County on business. Gast told NBC10 they were leaving the Dunkin' Donuts moments before the accident and spotted Jane Harakel pulling her vehicle out of the store. Gast said they were both driving out at the same time but he ultimately allowed Harakel to go ahead of them.
Hiler was sitting in the backseat of the car when he spotted the tractor trailer strike Harakel's vehicle along with Augustine's.
"The crunching and the screeching and the metal and the glass and everything," said Hiler, who just recently had a fifth grandson. "It just wouldn't stop."
The crash, which was caught on surveillance video, ended with the big rig's cab pinning multiple vehicles, including Gast's red sedan and Harakel's silver SUV, against a sign outside a Dunkin' Donuts coffee shop just after 6:30 a.m.
"In reviewing the video, this should not have happened," Adams said. "This tractor-trailer just never stopped, resulting in a horrific accident."
Bernier, a registered sex offender out on parole, was driving the truck for Harrisburg-based Cougle's Recycling. Bernier began his shift at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday and admitted to falling asleep at the wheel, Adams said.
"When he woke up he laid on the brakes but needless to say the tractor-trailer careened across his lane of traffic, impacting two vehicles waiting to leave this scene at the Dunkin' Donuts," Adams said.
A police officer, who happened to be inside the Dunkin' Donuts coffee shop at the time, rushed outside to assist the victims. Gast's red sedan was underneath Harakel's SUV. Miraculously, Gast and his co-workers survived.
"The sound is something that I'll never get out of my head," Gast said. "And I just don't know how I'm going to deal with that honestly."
Gast suffered a contusion and whiplash, Hiler suffered three broken ribs and Bowker suffered bruising and soreness. The other six injured victims suffered what Adams said appeared to be non-life-threatening injuries.
Gast also told NBC10 he approached Bernier moments after the crash, asking him what happened.
"He was beside himself," Gast said. "He just said, 'You know what? I dozed off. Man I just dozed off. Man I just dozed off.'"
Police took Bernier into custody at the hospital after he submitted to a blood test.
"We do not have any reason to believe that he was under influence of alcohol but we will be testing his blood to determine," Adams said.
It appeared Bernier was driving too fast for the conditions at the time of the crash, Adams said.
Bernier was convicted in 2006 for a 2004 sexual assault on a child under the age of 13, according to Pennsylvania's Megan's Law website. He was also issued a traffic ticket in September for operating unsafe equipment, according to court records.
Cougle's Recycling was inspected four times over the past two years and was cited last year for a seatbelt infraction.
"We are praying for all those involved in today's terrible accident," said Cougle's Recycling's chief operating officer Matthew Cougle. "We cannot sufficiently express our deepest condolences to all who have been impacted by this tragic event. We will cooperate fully with the ongoing investigation as the facts continue to unfold."