Massachusetts Fire, EMS Crews Respond to 65-Vehicle Pile-Up

Black ice blamed for Worcester I-290 crashes


 
 

SCOTT J. CROTEAU, Telegram & Gazette | | Monday, December 2, 2013


WORCESTER — Donna Ellis saw commotion ahead on Interstate 290 westbound. She didn't know what was in front of her, but once she saw the pile of cars, the 48-year-old Worcester resident hit the brakes.

But instead of avoiding the 65-vehicle crash Sunday morning, Ms. Ellis found herself slamming into a car, then into a side barrier.

"Once I hit my brakes, it was over," she said. "I was thinking 'Oh my God, I am going to crash. I don't want to die.' I was not injured at all. I was one of the lucky ones."

Public safety personnel had to climb over a mangled mess of metal as they responded to people in need of help. The massive crash was reported about 6:30 a.m. on the westbound side of the highway near Exit 14.

State police said that of the 35 to 40 people injured, only two had serious injuries. Five EMS companies took the injured to St. Vincent Hospital and UMass Memorial Medical Center's University and Memorial campuses.

"I am extremely surprised that nobody was killed, especially the vehicles that went under the trailer truck," said State Police Sgt. Stephen C. Marsh of the Collision Analysis Reconstruction Section. "We had to talk over the hoods of the cars, under the trailer trucks. The scene was impenetrable."

Black ice began to cover the highway about 6:30 a.m., causing drivers to lose control while heading down the descending section of I-290 westbound.

When the first accident was called in, Trooper Erin McLaughlin headed to the scene to check on the accident. She began to help one motorist.

"As Trooper McLaughlin exited her cruiser to assist the motorist involved in that crash she observed multiple vehicles sliding toward her out of control," Sgt. Marsh said. "She yelled to warn to those motorists to take cover."

The trooper dove into her cruiser as it was struck by a car. She suffered minor injuries, authorities said.

A chain reaction of crashes began, and cars piled up in the road. Two tractor-trailers slid sideways at the front and rear of the accident scene. Two large commercial trucks were also struck. State police estimated 65 vehicles were involved.

Some cars were wedged underneath the tractor-trailers with cars piled on top of them.

"When the crash ended is when enough cars had to back up over that rise for oncoming motorists to see that there was actually a collision," the sergeant said. The crash scene was 1,500 feet long.

Sgt. Marsh said poor roadway conditions were the culprit in the massive pileup. The road was closed for four-and-a-half hours.

"I have never seen anything of this magnitude," Sgt. Marsh said.

Ms. Ellis was on her way to Spencer to pick up her niece and nephew. She planned to take her niece to work and watch her nephew. She wasn't on the highway for three minutes before she joined the back end of the crash scene.

A car slammed into the back of her 2011 Chevy Impala when she stopped sliding. Public safety officials had to pull on her driver's side door to get her out.

"It is pretty much a blur," she said. "It happened so fast. It was crazy and freaky to see."

She joined the group of nearly 70 people taken by Worcester Regional Transit Authority buses to the St. Vincent Hospital atrium, where state police talked to people who were involved in the crash.

"It is the Thanksgiving weekend so there's a lot of people that were going home that are now involved in a crash hundreds of miles from home," Sgt. Marsh said. "It was a very dangerous morning."

The sergeant said there were serious crashes in other parts of the state, such as Route 9 in Northboro.

Twenty-five cars were involved in the Route 9 crash in Northboro, including the Northboro Fire Department ambulance, which was responding to the crash at the time, said Northboro police Sgt. Joseph Galvin. The crash happened shortly before 7 a.m. just east of the Route 20 interchange, and no life-threatening injuries were reported.

In the I-290 crash, one of the drivers involved, Gina Colone of Michigan, saw vehicles in the eastbound lanes flashing their lights at her as she drove west Sunday morning.

Just as she started to wonder why, she rounded the curve where Interstates 290 and 190 meet and began a harrowing slide on the unseen ice.

The westbound lanes slope downhill at the end of the curve, and her Dodge minivan was completely out of control and not slowing at all as the pileup came into view ahead.

"As soon as we got to the top of the hill, 40 cars in front of us. Stopped," Ms. Colone said. "There was nothing I could do. We just slid down the hill."

The dodge careened into a tractor-trailer at the back of the pile, and she called out to her children to stay buckled up and not to move.

They were hit from behind by other out-of-control cars twice before the back of the pile shifted farther down the road from their position.

Ms. Colone, who was a half-hour into a 12-hour drive home to Michigan, had spent Thanksgiving at her brother's house in Marlboro.

Ms. Colone and her children in the back seat weren't hurt, but her 70-year-old mother suffered minor cuts and some swelling from the impact with the truck, she said.

Troopers began to log and take pictures of the Worcester scene and will begin the arduous task of investigating the accident.

Worcester Deputy Police Chief Steven M. Sargent said Worcester police officers were stationed at every I-290 westbound ramp in Worcester to keep people off the highway while the accident was being cleared.

David Clemons, city emergency management director, said Worcester officials sent WRTA buses to I-290 shortly after the accident to take those involved in the crash to the atrium at St. Vincent Hospital. A shelter wasn't needed because everyone involved in the crash had relatives nearby or someplace to stay.

Those who needed a phone were allowed to use hospital phones.

Crews from the state Department of Transportation were on the roads Sunday morning, but the ice developed fast.

"It came up suddenly and quickly and the number of crews we had just wasn't enough," said Michael Verseckes, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.

As of mid-morning Sunday, roughly 125 state trucks were out treating the roadways in Worcester County.

Damaged cars were being towed to the former KJ Baaron's parking lot on Summer Street and another lot in Washington Square, and later moved to towing company lots. Some cars had minor damage, others were much worse.

Doug Bowden, a tow truck driver for Fuller's of Auburn, said, "There was some pretty bad damage on some of the vehicles."

Mr. Bowden said there was a tractor-trailer at the front of the crash site and another in the back area. There were some cars struck underneath the tractor-trailers.

"It was very icy," Mr. Bowden said after dropping a car off at the former KJ Baaron's lot. "In Auburn we had five or six calls ourselves but then state police begged us to come out here."

State police were in the parking lot Sunday morning assessing the damage to all of the vehicles.

Alan Dunham, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Taunton, said a light drizzle landing on an already cold road coupled with below-freezing temperatures caused the icy conditions.

"A lot of wet weather isn't needed when the ground is that cold," Mr. Dunham said. "It doesn't take much to cause ice."

Stephen J. Kelly, a 43-year-old from Oxford, had stayed overnight at a friend's home in Worcester and left about 6:30 a.m. to go home. He saw the accident scene on I-290 and felt his Ford F-150 begin to swerve sideways.

Cars spun inches from his truck as he glided away from them.

"Cars were doing 360s," he said. "It was like I threaded the needle. It is not like I am a good driver, I just got lucky."

Mr. Kelly got off the highway at a nearby exit and collected himself. He took Route 12 home the rest of the way.

Thomas Caywood of the Telegram & Gazette staff contributed to this report.

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