By Frank Andruscavage
Source The Citizens' Voice, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
MOUNT PLEASANT, PA—Five people are confirmed dead after a multi-vehicle accident in the northbound lanes of Interstate 81 in Foster Twp., Schuylkill County, during a snow squall Monday morning.
The sudden onset of heavy snow coupled with fog in the area proved a dangerous combination as tractor-trailers, trucks and passenger vehicles slammed into one another. The impact caused at least one tractor-trailer to catch fire; another truck carrying acetylene cylinders was near the blaze.
The fire spread to other trucks and passenger vehicles involved in the initial crash, but it did not reach the truck carrying the acetylene.
Firefighters said all of the fatalities were believed to be people involved in the vehicles that caught fire during the initial crash.
Schuylkill County Deputy Coroner Albert Barnes pronounced the victims dead at the scene.
Around 3 p.m. Monday, Barnes said several other vehicles had to be examined and that the death toll could increase. No information was available on the names or addresses of the victims.
In addition to those killed, several people were flown by helicopter to trauma centers for treatment of serious injuries, while a mass casualty incident triage area was set up on the property of Wegmans Distribution Center in the Highridge Industrial Park, a short distance from the crash site.
A state police trooper was among those injured when his patrol vehicle became part of the chain-reaction crash. He was taken to a local hospital to be checked out and treated for minor injuries.
The crash occurred around 10:30 a.m. in an area just south of the Minersville exit, Exit 116.
Emergency personnel said more than 50 vehicles may have been involved.
Eric Eichenberg, Minersville fire chief, was in command of the incident since it happened in Foster Twp.
He said crews had a difficult time getting to the scene due to slippery road conditions and vehicles that were stuck on Route 901 leading to the interstate.
Firefighters set up portable dams to shuttle water to fight the fire, while rescue crews and firefighters from numerous area companies worked to free people trapped inside their vehicles. An aerial truck was used to spray water from above onto the burning vehicles.
As several firefighters worked to extinguish the fire, others walked from crushed vehicle to crushed vehicle checking on the occupants and treating the injured as needed.
Firefighters spray painted a red "X" on the windshield as a sign that the vehicle had been checked for occupants or injuries.
Early in the incident responding rescue, fire and EMS units were told to get on I-81 at the Highridge interchange and travel south in the northbound lanes of the highway to access the crash.
Fire apparatus and EMS units, as well as state and municipal officers, accessed the crash from the Route 901 overpass.
Sam Beagle, owner of Pristine Flooring in Mount Carmel, was traveling north and planned on getting off at the Minersville exit.
"All hell broke loose, it was a pure white out, pure hell," Beagle said.
Beagle said he was traveling about 35 mph when a passing tractor-trailer started to jack knife.
"That was the one (truck) in the first wreck," Beagle said, adding that it appeared he was going under the speed limit but still too fast for conditions.
Beagle said his work van began to slide and went off the road, missing vehicles that either already crashed or were crashing.
"I got super lucky," he said. "I slid into the grass and dodged every rig by about an inch."
Beagle recalled the frightening sounds he heard after his van came to a stop.
"Every five seconds all you heard was bang, bang, bang," he said. "There were people screaming and screaming. It was the worst screaming you ever heard."
As he was near his van with his worker, who was riding with him, Beagle said he could see firefighters cutting people out of vehicles and taking them away.
"It was something you don't want to see," he said.
Schuylkill County Emergency Management Agency Coordinator John Matz said Wegmans opened up its employee lunch room and provided food and beverages to people who were being evaluated by EMS personnel. Those who were not injured were then taken to the Goodwill Fire Company in Minersville by Schuylkill Transportation System buses.
Matz said members of the American Red Cross opened a reception center to provide a safe, warm central hub for those affected, as well as allowing them to receive and send information to their families.
Matz said about 40 or 50 people were helped at the fire company.
Those who had their vehicles destroyed were helped with lodging at the Inn and Suites hotel at the Highridge Industrial Park. Matz said the cost of the lodging was picked up by the Red Cross with assistance from the Schuylkill County United Way.
Matz said that emergency efforts went well considering the enormous amount of vehicles and victims.
"Everybody involved from EMS, the 911 Center and firefighters worked together. Everybody steps up in a time like this," Matz said.
A driver caught up in the pileup but not injured posted a video that went viral on Facebook and other social media sites.
In the video, the driver exited his vehicle and, recording with his cellphone, captured a tractor-trailer slamming into the back of another tractor-trailer at almost full speed, then a third-tractor trailer slamming into the second truck.
As the driver pans to face south, an SUV can be seen skidding off the road and onto the berm, where it hits a car whose driver had just exited and had to jump out of the way to avoid being struck.
"This is crazy," the man shooting the video could be heard saying.
After commenting on the severity of the vehicles on fire, the man shooting the video can be heard saying he is going to go and see if he can help anyone involved.
State police were beginning their complicated investigation as to what caused the crash, which was said to be weather related. Involved were troopers from the Frackville station, along with accident reconstruction experts, the motor carrier enforcement unit and the forensic services unit, all from Troop L, Reading.
Firefighters originally shut down the northbound lanes at the Hegins exit, mile marker 112, but later moved the closure south, shutting down the highway at the Tremont exit, mile marker 107.
Southbound traffic was brought to a standstill at the Highridge exit, mile marker 119, and later pushed back to shutting down the road at the Frackville exit, mile marker 124.
Also closed was Keystone Boulevard inside the Highridge Industrial Park, and Gordon Mountain Road and Route 901 in both directions, toward Minersville and into Barry Twp.
All roadways were reopened as of 5 p.m., with the exception of the northbound lanes of I-81 and the eastbound lanes of Route 901.
The northbound lanes are expected to remain closed overnight into Tuesday morning as the vehicles were removed and the accident reconstruction was completed.
The crash made headlines on the national news media including the top story on The Weather Channel.
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