'Horrific, surreal experience,' photographer recalls

EDITOR'S NOTE: Alex McMahan photographed the carnage on Interstate 75 on Dec. 11, 1990, for the Chattanooga Free Press. Here, 20 years later, he describes his thoughts and observations in the aftermath of the 99-car pileup that killed 12 people.

Horrific is the first word that comes to mind in trying to describe what I saw when I stood on that bridge and looked out over Interstate 75 at the massive pileup 20 years ago north of Cleveland, Tenn.

I also remember the frustrating moments before I walked out onto the overpass, as I was refused entry to the scene of this carnage for well over an hour.

My press credentials were, for a while, no help in getting past the roadblocks. Local police, state troopers and rescue personnel were being tested in ways I bet few, if any, ever had been before. They were trying to do their best to handle what looked like something from a war zone.

I ended up driving a 60-mile loop around this section of I-75 before finally gaining access to the wreck scene. The frustration was put into its proper perspective and quickly melted away after I shot the first few photos from that bridge.

Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. Destroyed cars and transfer trucks everywhere. It was a surreal experience to walk through all the charred metal and broken glass.

There was no hysteria. No tears. Everyone working that catastrophic pileup appeared completely focused on the task at hand and doing what had to be done. They were all over the place.

The delay I had experienced had spared me the sight of bodies, which were now behind plastic fencing in a makeshift morgue.

As I shot my photos, I remember appreciating that I was witnessing and documenting only what this carnage had done to the vehicles.

I heard one story while I was there about an elderly couple who managed to avoid running into the trailer of a wrecked transfer truck only to be killed when their car was sandwiched between the wreck they just avoided and another tractor-trailer rig that could not stop in time.

Apparently the couple had gotten back into their car when they heard the oncoming truck's tires screeching on the pavement.

Panic must have reigned supreme among the drivers and their passengers as sounds of cars and trucks smashing into each other surrounded them in a shroud of blinding fog. There also must have been great confusion in trying to determine if it would be safer to stay in their vehicles or start running without any sense of where they were going.

I'm guessing that I was on the scene for about an hour before I made by way back to my car. When I arrived back at the office, reporters from The Associated Press, United Press International and Reuters were waiting for me.

The photos I shot that day ran in national publications in the United States as well as in Europe. As a photographer, I had dreamed of having my work displayed on the world stage. However, this was not the way I imagined it was going to happen.

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Article: Echoes from the fog