Echoes from the fog

Echoes from the fog

December 5th, 2010 by Emily Bregel in News

Like a bleeding apparition, the man emerged from a fog thicker than anything patrol officer Bill Dyer had ever seen. Heavy and opaque, the cloud that shrouded the highway was as impenetrable as a blizzard's whiteout.

Hunks of skin hung from the man's face as he staggered toward Dyer's Bradley County patrol car, sitting on the northbound Interstate 75 exit ramp in Calhoun, Tenn.

"We need help," the man said, his voice shaking. "We need help."

Dyer had just gotten off the highway, thinking he had received a false report of a wreck. Even when he saw the injured man, he assumed that a one- or two-car fender-bender was ahead. He rolled down his window to tell the man to lie down while he called for an ambulance.

Then the sounds began wafting through the fog into Dyer's open window: the smashing of metal on metal, and later, explosions and screams.

"Just one right after another, on and on and on," recalled Dyer, now 47, in a recent interview. "I could hear them crashing. I knew I had to try to do something."

Twenty years ago, on Dec. 11, 1990, Dyer was the first responder to the worst fatal accident on Tennessee highways in nearly two decades, and the most deadly fog-induced wreck in state history, according to the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

Ultimately 12 people died and 42 were injured in the 99-vehicle pileup, which began on the southbound highway when one tractor-trailer rear-ended another in the dense fog.

As the uninjured truckers inspected their vehicles for damage, a four-door sedan hit the second tractor-trailer. That trailer carried 10 tanks of dicumyl peroxide, a hazardous, flammable chemical used in the rubber and plastics industry. Then a third semi crashed into the sedan, pushing it underneath the second trailer.

Fire erupted, and the Wisconsin couple inside the sedan burned to death in the first of many chain-reaction crashes.

The collisions continued for what seemed like forever to survivors, as one fog-blind driver after another slammed into the growing wreck.

The crash site ultimately stretched for a half-mile in the north- and southbound lanes. The victims hailed from across the continent, from Canada to Florida, including four from Tennessee.

More than 65 emergency responders -- police, fire, EMS and social service agencies -- from Chattanooga to Knoxville rushed to a scene more gruesome and haunting than many had ever witnessed.

For the rest of the day, emergency responders pulled charred, unrecognizable corpses and pieces of bodies from smoldering, melted wreckage, collecting the remains in a makeshift morgue on the median strip.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Photo by Alex McMahan - Dec. 11, 1990 - Fire department and rescue personnel stand in the charred wreckage after the 1990 pileup on I-75. The wreck involved 99 vehicles, killed 12 people and injured 42.

Two dozen tractor-trailer rigs -- including a propane tank that miraculously didn't explode -- were involved, crushing vehicles between them. A Chevy Blazer was smashed accordion-style into a lump of metal half its original size.

Survivors who made it to the median recall waiting, confused and powerless, as they listened to the crashes continue around them, barely glimpsing fires blazing through the fog.

The crash launched years of litigation that charged negligence against Tennessee and a nearby industry alleged to have contributed to the killer fog with its water vapor and industrial emissions.

The pileup also brought about long-called-for updates to the fog zone's minimal alert system, ushering in a state-of-the-art surveillance and warning system. The zone has had no fog-related fatalities since the system was launched in 1993.

On that Tuesday morning, Dyer put in an urgent call for backup and braced himself for the worst as he carefully pulled his car back onto the fog-covered northbound side of the highway, gripping the steering wheel with both hands. He listened to crashes on the southbound side until he thought he had passed the major crash site.

He parked, then ran across the median toward the disaster, praying he could flag down oncoming traffic before more vehicles hit the deadly cloak of fog.

IN THE MIDST

Pulling 150 Christmas trees in a trailer behind his truck, 29-year-old Johnny Weaver cruised down I-75 on the morning of Dec. 11. He had set off before dawn with a friend on one of many annual trips from his family's tree farm in Jefferson, N.C., to tree retailers in Chattanooga.

Wearing sunglasses to shield his eyes from the bright morning sun, Weaver approached Calhoun, Tenn., about 9 a.m.

As he neared the state Route 163 overpass, visibility went to zero within seconds and fog engulfed his truck. He was zooming down the highway blind.

Weaver crashed into a truck that materialized out of the cloud a few feet ahead. Almost immediately cars began hitting him from behind.

"It was one right after another," Weaver said in a recent phone interview. "The most scary thing was, you didn't know which way to run, which way to safety."

His truck ended up pushed into the median, and he and his friend rushed to the relative safety of the grassy strip. They waited, tightlipped, listening to wrecks and glimpsing flames from vehicles burning and tires exploding around them.

"It was a bad nightmare," he said.

CRASH VICTIMS

* Jerry Dodrill, 52, Seth, W.Va.

* Donald Albrecht, Key West, Fla.

* Alan Day, 39, Howell, Mich.

* Melinda Jones, 33, Chattanooga

* Barbara Lang, 58, Windsor, Ontario, Canada

* Judy Russell McKeehan, 51, Athens, Tenn.

* Craig Piper, 30, Phenix City, Ala.

* Richard Platt, 60, Farragut, Tenn.

* Patsy Robbins, 52, Athens, Tenn.

* Frances Shattock, Dillwyn, Va.

* Leonard John Ellerbrock, 69, Washington Island, Wis.

* Eileen Phyllis Ellerbrock, 67, Washington Island, Wis.

Source: Associated Press archives

Crashes soon began on the northbound side, where Chattanooga resident Chris DeBolt, 38 at the time, was heading to Knoxville on a sales call.

In a recent interview, DeBolt said he hit a "curtain" of fog just south of the Route 163 overpass.

DeBolt still was going at least 50 miles per hour, aware that a hulking tractor-trailer was somewhere behind him, when he saw a man appear in the middle of the road, waving frantically for him to pull over.

DeBolt veered left before reaching the man and skidded into the median. Fearful that more cars could follow him, he jumped out of his car and looked back at the road. It was then he saw the same tractor-trailer, at high speed, slam into a stopped Toyota Corolla, crushing the Corolla into another tractor rig.

He stared at the wreck, realizing he had almost taken the place of the woman crushed to death in what was the final collision of the northbound highway's pileups.

According to the federal report on the accident, the 51-year-old woman's legs were sheared off in the crash, among other injuries.

DeBolt heard an explosion on the southbound side of the highway. Looking across the median, he saw a tractor-trailer burst into a "ball of fire," he said.

The rest of the morning was a blur, DeBolt said.

"It was pretty much slow motion. I kind of wandered around trying to help people," he said.

DeBolt didn't realize the extent of the disaster until he later got back in his car, detouring around the wreck and continuing to Knoxville, and heard body counts on the news.

He never got to talk to the man who had flagged him down and saved his life.

RESCUE EFFORTS

On the southbound side of I-75, Dyer continued trying to flag cars down. Each time one sped past him, he heard a crash moments later.

When oncoming traffic slowed and finally stopped, Dyer hitched a ride into the fog on the running board of an arriving ambulance. He began going car to car, trying to apply tourniquets and give first aid to those he found alive.

"I'd seen people killed in car wrecks before. That wasn't the first time I'd seen that," he recalled recently. "But it was one thing to respond to an accident and another one to almost be in the middle of it, hearing the crashes, hearing the people screaming."

As one of the first on the scene, the worst part was feeling helpless, Dyer said.

DETAILS FROM ACCIDENT REPORT

The National Weather Service's forecast for Calhoun, Tenn., on the morning of Dec. 11, 1990, called for "sunny and mild" conditions with highs in the mid-60s. There was no forecast for fog.

Injuries to six of the 12 accident victims was described as "incineration." Two other people died from second- and third-degree burns over 90 percent of their bodies. Four died from trauma, including abdominal hemorrhage, a fractured neck and a 51-year-old woman whose legs were cut off in the crash.

Source: National Transportation Safety Board highway accident report, issued September 1992


TIPS: DRIVING IN FOG

Fog forms when the temperature drops and invisible water vapor in the air condenses to form suspended water droplets. Fog can reduce visibility to one-quarter mile or less, creating hazardous driving conditions.

* Drive with lights on low beam. High beams will only be reflected back off the fog and impair visibility.

* Reduce speed and watch your speedometer. Fog creates a visual illusion of slow motion, when you may actually be speeding.

* Listen for traffic you cannot see. Open your window to hear better.

* Use wipers and defrosters as necessary.

* Use the right edge of the road or painted road markings as a guide.

* Be patient. Do not pass lines of traffic.

* Do not stop on a freeway or heavily traveled road. If your car stalls or becomes disabled, turn your vehicle's lights off and take your foot off of the brake pedal. People tend to follow taillights when driving in fog. Move away from the vehicle to avoid injury.

Source: National Weather Service


HISTORY OF ACCIDENTS

The I-75 fog zone near Calhoun had a history of wrecks in heavy-morning fogs. This section of highway opened in December 1973.

* March 9, 1974 -- 18 vehicles, three deaths, 10 injuries

* April 19, 1974 -- Nine vehicles, nine injuries

* June 12, 1976 -- Four vehicles, no injuries or deaths

* Dec. 16, 1977 -- 14 vehicles, seven injuries

* Nov. 5, 1978 -- 63-plus vehicles, 46 injuries

* April 15, 1979 -- 18 vehicles, three deaths, 14 injuries

* Dec. 11, 1990 -- 99 vehicles, 12 deaths, 42 injuries

Source: Chattanooga Times archives, citing the National Transportation Safety Board

"There's only so much you can do. You've only got just your hands and a radio," he said. Still, he said, "we were able to help a lot of people, pull people out of cars that were on fire."

But like all the rescue workers on duty that day, he found many who were beyond saving.

As Dyer worked at the tail end of the crashes on the southbound interstate, Dr. Jerry DeVane was working his way up from the head of the wreck on the same side of the highway.

DeVane, then medical director for Bradley County EMS, was one of the first medical responders on the scene. He had heard Dyer's quavering voice shouting over his EMS portable radio that morning: "Send me everything you have."

DeVane had sped north to the crash scene, slowing as he entered the fog, a "big gray ocean across the sky," he later recalled in a written memoir.

After crossing the median and parking at the roadside on the southbound lanes, he picked his way through the burning wreckage. The fog cover was almost complete, and he could see only a few feet. He walked beneath the state Route 163 overpass without seeing the bridge overhead.

"It was surreal. I'd never been involved in something where you were blinded and had this level of casualties," he said in an interview.

Rescue workers later said the fog helped shield them from the full magnitude of the accident, blotting out the chaos beyond a small bubble of visibility. For DeVane, the fog cover allowed him to work methodically, treating and assessing patients alongside an inferno.

"That kept you from being overwhelmed," he said.

DeVane passed cars and trucks with minimal damage tucked among vehicles unrecognizably destroyed. He gave his fire retardant coat to a woman who had fled her car with her uncovered baby, blue from the December cold.

He came upon a Chevy Blazer crushed into a 4-foot-long lump of metal and later learned the occupants had gotten out and reached the shoulder seconds before it was demolished by an oncoming vehicle.

Survivors ran to him, begging him to save their trapped loved ones, lost behind a wall of flame. But he focused on triage and logistics: treating and directing resources to as many people with a chance of survival as possible, and moving quickly past those he knew already were gone.

It wasn't until hours later -- when the adrenaline had subsided and dozens of survivors had been taken away -- that doubts and guilt crept in to replace his trained emergency medicine response.

Surveying the bodies in the makeshift morgue, DeVane wondered if he could have done more.

"It doesn't come back to you until after the fact," he said. "After it was all over and the fog had lifted, and people had been extracted ... that's when it kind of came back. That sticks with you for a while."

The fires from ignited vehicles burned long and hot enough to melt the asphalt of the highway, which eventually had to be repaved, Dyer said.

"It was unbelievable. ... What had been a semi truck was reduced to just burnt-up ashes," he said.

When Ray Rucker, then maintenance officer for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, arrived later, the fog had dissipated and the scene lay under blue skies.

The tangle of incinerated vehicles on both sides of the highway was the "most horrific" accident anyone had seen since the 1970s, said Rucker, now TDOT Region 2 director in Chattanooga.

"It was just a horror to look at," he said.

The pileup precipitated one of the first uses of a "peer debriefing" counseling session for emergency responders, recalled Ken Wilkerson, chief of Hamilton County EMS. He had been chief for two years and was a veteran firefighter when he went to the crash scene.

Even for seasoned veterans, the scope of the accident was shocking, he said.

But that day, "there were an awful lot of folks that had a lot of first-time experiences," he said. "One of the firefighters who responded, it was his first call. And from what I understand, it was his last call. He couldn't do it anymore."

AFTER THE CRASH

The I-75 fog zone near Calhoun had been the site of six multiple-vehicle accidents between March 1974 and April 1979, resulting in six deaths and 86 injuries. And the 1990 crash marked the third time in 12 years that a fog-induced pileup in the same three-mile fog zone prompted an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The report concluded that drivers with differing reactions to the fog -- some maintained high speeds, some slowed down -- were a major cause of the disaster.

Again, questions were raised about the role of water vapor and other emissions from the nearby Bowater paper mill and its wastewater cooling ponds along the Hiwassee River, about a mile south of the accident site.

Bowater has denied contributing to visibility problems in the low-lying, fog-prone stretch of highway. The company declined to comment for this story.

The state also was criticized for not implementing detailed plans for a new fog-warning system after earlier pileups, particularly the fog-induced accidents of 1978 and 1979.

Only after the deadly 1990 crash, under Gov. Ned McWherter's administration, was a multimillion-dollar fog warning system finally put in place along a 19-mile stretch that previously had offered only reflectors and a single fog-warning sign on either side of the highway.

"It was my sense it should have been dealt with earlier," Jim Hall, planning director for the McWherter administration at the time of the crash, said recently.

"It was unfortunate that it took [multiple] events like that to finally get the kind of action that was needed, which was to put in place the kind of [fog-alert] system that is presently there," said Hall, who lives on Signal Mountain. Two years after the pileup, he was appointed chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, where he served seven years.

A $5.5 million update to the fog-alert system was completed in 1993, following recommendations from the NTSB.

Now, nine fog detectors line the road, monitoring air-moisture levels and calculating visibility. Fourteen radar detectors track vehicle speeds in the fog zone.

The fog and speed sensor readings can trigger warnings to a dispatcher assigned to monitor fog in the area. The officer can activate fog-alert messages to appear on new overhead signs before and throughout the fog zone, and activate lights on roadside fog warning signs.

The officer determines whether visibility is compromised enough to reduce the speed limit in the fog zone on changeable signs. The speed limit can drop from 70 to 50 mph, or to 35 mph in more extreme circumstances.

In a worst-case scenario, the Tennessee Highway Patrol can shut down the highway, remotely closing entrances to the fog zone by deploying swing gates at six on-ramps.

The state-of-the-art system represented a major leap forward in fog detection and driver notification and set a new standard for transportation departments worldwide, transportation officials said.

"At the time, this was the only [fog-alert] system of its kind in the country," said Lt. Tommie Graham of the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

In 2006 the state spent $6.8 million to upgrade the system and add a video feed so highway patrol officers could see fog and traffic patterns.

And the efforts appear to have paid off, transportation officials say. No fog-related pileups have occurred in the fog zone since the new system has been in place. Since the alert system was completed, the fog-zone area has been shut down and traffic rerouted on two occasions.

But some officials and rescue workers maintain there hasn't been a fog comparable to the one that blinded drivers that December morning 20 years ago.

Wilkerson of Hamilton County EMS said the thickness of the fog wasn't notable, but its concentration was.

"There was no gradual build-up. You were in the clear; you were in the fog. It was that sudden," he said.

Dyer said the fog's opaqueness was unparalleled.

"I drive that area every day, but I had never seen it that thick ... like a whiteout like with snow," Dyer said. "If the same circumstances were to present themselves ... it could happen again."

Rucker, of TDOT, disagreed. He said even if such a deadly fog appeared again, the highway would be closed quickly and traffic redirected before that many vehicles could become involved.

"That kind of accident is not happening again," he said.

20 YEARS LATER

First responders, survivors, victims' families and local residents who witnessed the wreck all remember the horrors of that day.

"There were people involved in the wreck that spanned Chattanooga to Knoxville to Polk to Rhea counties," DeVane said. "Twenty years later, you can ask at any EMS or rescue unit and there will be people there that responded and still have vivid recollections of the day."

The crash prompted the development of mutual-aid agreements between first responders in the region, Wilkerson said.

"The necessity for togetherness there paved the way for our routine common responses today," Wilkerson said. "That showed ... none of us were in stand-alone organizations. It showed us the need to have plans in place before events."

Every Dec. 11 for eight years after the pileup, Dyer went to the crash site to pay quiet tribute to the victims.

"There's nothing up there that shows what happened that day," he said. "I'll never forget the faces. ... When I drive through that area, I still see the wreck. I still see the bodies. You look and you see it in your mind."

He never learned what happened to the man who staggered out of the fog and warned him.

For months DeVane, now an emergency room physician at SkyRidge Medical Center in Cleveland, Tenn., fought a sense of dread whenever he drove the fog zone. As a kind of catharsis, he collected newspaper clippings about the pileup and even has a tape of 911 calls made that day. Listening to the tape still gives him chills, he said.

"It took a year before I could drive through that area, even in bright sunshine, without feeling tightness under my clavicles," he said. "It has made an impact on people's lives. ... It will for years and years to come -- both those who lost loved ones and those that actually responded to the accident itself."

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