State highway patrol officers on Loop 101 watched in horror Saturday as the burning cars piled on top of one another.
But the officers, with fire extinguishers in hand seconds later, were already too late.
The officers found three burned bodies in the fiery nine-car crash that shut down the Pima Freeway stretch of Loop 101 about a mile north of Loop 202 for several hours and backed up traffic for miles, said Frank Valenzuela of the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
John Toth, 57, of Scottsdale; Allen Krueger, 45, of Scottsdale; and Robin Shoup, 57, of Cave Creek were killed.
Three others were taken to the hospital.
Officers said the pileup began when a man driving north on Loop 101 stopped in a middle lane of the busy freeway about 1:30 p.m. and got out of his car just south of McKellips Road.
Traffic behind him started to slow, but a utility truck several cars back could not stop and slammed into a sedan.
A "horrific" chain reaction followed, Valenzuela said.
The sedan’s gas tank ruptured and spilled gas on the pavement. Metal striking the freeway sparked a blaze that engulfed the car and cab of the truck.
The sedan then hit a full-size Ford sport utility vehicle, causing the SUV to flip into the air, almost striking an overhead freeway sign, and landing on top of two other vehicles ahead. The burning sedan was pushed again into the rolled SUV, which also burst into flames. Four other vehicles were involved in the crash.
DPS officers witnessed the crash from the side of the freeway as they investigated an unrelated incident. They ran to the wreckage with fire extinguishers. They knew at least one person inside the sedan was still alive when they heard yelling and pounding through the thick, black smoke.
"They did what they could, but the heat was so intense they were unable to help the occupants," Valenzuela said.
All three people in the car were pronounced dead. The driver of the truck was taken to Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix with burns to the face and chest.
Two others were hospitalized with nonlife-threatening injuries.
"Everyone else was up and around and refused treatment, which is really hard to believe," Valenzuela said. Investigators were still trying to determine why the man stopped his car on the freeway. He was not injured, and his name was not released. The crash closed the northbound lanes of Loop 101 from Loop 202 to McKellips Road until about 8 p.m. The closure created backups on Loop 202 and southbound Loop 101 as drivers slowed to view the crash.