In the pre-dawn hours, the lonely stretch of Route 210 belonged to a crowd of street-racing fans pumped up by the thrill of squealing tires, smoke and speed.
They spilled into the middle of a 55-mph zone, enveloped by the smoke cloud as two racers peeled off to the north. No one suspected the danger that roared from behind until it was upon them.
In an instant, Crystal Gaines pulled her daughter from the path of the late-night motorist but the white sedan plowed into her father and other spectators early Saturday.
"I hollered, 'Daddy, Daddy!'" Gaines recalled hours later.
William Gaines Sr. was among eight people killed. At least five others were injured in the gruesome wreck along an isolated ribbon of highway about 20 miles south of Washington known for illegal races.
The combination of the smoke and the dark likely meant the sedan driver could not see the crowd, police said. A tractor-trailer that came by shortly afterward also may have struck someone on the roadside as it tried to avoid the crash scene, according to investigators.
Police interviewed the driver of the Ford Crown Victoria sedan, but no charges were pending, said Prince George's County police Cpl. Clinton Copeland. Authorities were looking for the drivers of the two cars involved in the race.
Bodies along the road
In the daylight, bodies covered by white sheets lay in the road and on the shoulder across a 50-foot stretch of the road later Saturday morning before they were removed by the medical examiner.
The Crown Victoria, which had a crumpled hood and a partially collapsed roof, ended up down an embankment with one of the victims lodged inside. Shoes were strewn about in the grass, and pair of dark skid marks scarred the highway.
The car came through so fast that "it just ripped people apart," said William Gaines Jr. "I didn't even see the car. All I heard was stuff breaking."
His 61-year-old father — who watched the illegal street racers about once a week, according to Crystal Gaines — had been hobbled by a broken leg and couldn't move fast enough.
"He wasn't breathing; he wasn't moving," his daughter said. "His body was in pieces."
She said about 50 people were watching the race.
The victims' ages ranged from their 20s to 60s, police said. Seven people were pronounced dead at the scene, and an eighth died later at a hospital.
John Courtney said his brother, Mark, 33, of St. Mary's County, also was among the dead. He identified his brother from a digital image police had taken.
"He liked going to the race track, watching races," Courtney said. "It's going to take a toll on my family for a long time."
Street races not uncommon there
Route 210 is a thoroughfare with two lanes in each direction and few traffic lights along the stretch where the accident occurred. The road is flanked by some businesses but has little traffic in the early morning, Copeland said. The speed limit is 55 miles per hour.
Police said that street races are not uncommon on the stretch of road, but that most occur in the summer and involve motorcycles. But relatives said some of the victims often went to see races held late at night on isolated stretches of road.
"It's a problem," said Denee Hines, whose mother owns a hair salon only a few hundred feet from the site of the accident. "Everyone knows about it, but I've never heard of it getting this bad."