6 dead, dozens injured in pileup of 130+ vehicles in Texas
At least 36 people were transported from the pileup on an icy road near downtown Fort Worth
Jack Howland, Emerson Clarridge, and Kaley Johnson
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
FORT WORTH, Texas — The sun had not yet cracked the horizon early Thursday when in the express lanes of an interstate that twists around downtown Fort Worth, vehicles began to slam into one another.
As the commute to work was launching just after 6 a.m., ice on a half-mile section of I-35W thrust together sedans and pickup trucks and 18-wheelers, authorities said.
At least 133 vehicles were jumbled in the dark.
Six people died on the interstate. Others were trapped, and firefighters cut the steel and aluminum that had crushed around them. Sixty-five people were injured. All were adults. Three were in critical condition.
The cause of the pileup of overlapping vehicles was not certain, but ice was a factor, Fort Worth Police Chief Neil Noakes said.
"The scene we saw today is one really unlike one probably any of us have ever seen and one we pray to God we never see again," Noakes said.
The southbound lanes of the highway were icy and slick due to overnight freezing rain, authorities said. A video taken by a passing motorist about 6:20 a.m. shows a succession of vehicles, unable to come to a stop, crashing into each other with a thud.
MedStar took 36 people to hospitals, spokesman Matt Zavadsky said.
NEW: Fort Worth pile-up involves more than 50 vehicles w/multiple patients involved, but no firm number of casualties yet.— Morgan Chesky (@BreakingChesky) February 11, 2021
FD tells @kaylamc1 the concern now is hypothermia. A warming bus is on scene as firefighters are still in process of trying to extricate people. pic.twitter.com/3EkC2933sR
The crash scene, Zavadsky said, was spread across the interstate from 28th Street to Northside Drive, and medics found new victims every few minutes as they went from vehicle to vehicle. Searched vehicles were marked to avoid duplicating searches.
Photos from the fire department showed firefighters on top of bent and tangled vehicles, looking inside for people. They wheeled away some of the people on stretchers and escorted others to warming buses. They carried pets to safety.
One driver told the Star-Telegram he was able to stop just short of the crash and when he stepped out on the highway, "it was literally like stepping on an ice rink."
"I wasn't speeding. I was going relatively slow, paying attention to what was coming up ahead of me," said Shane, who declined to give his last name.
"I came out very blessed," he said. "I was looking in my rearview mirror and it was like watching the hand of God move these cars up around me in the ice, and I'm just very blessed. There was a whole lot of loss and a whole of tragedy out there, but there were miracles that happened at the same time. So praise God for that."
Lisa Salinas, a clerk at a nearby 7-Eleven, told the Star-Telegram that six to eight people involved in the crash walked into the store early Thursday, waiting for help. They were OK, she said, but shaken up. A Fort Worth jailer who had been in the crash told her his car just started sliding.
The crash occurred in TEXPress lanes, which opened several years ago in the median of I-35W. The lanes require motorists to pay an electronic toll — either by affixing a TollTag to their windshield or by having their license plate photographed and receiving a bill in the mail — as a way to pay their way around congestion that chronically occurs near downtown Fort Worth.
Although video recorded by passersby appear to show the pavement iced over when cars and trucks began to smash into each other, a spokesman for the North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners said the company had actively worked to keep ice off the roads.
"NTE & NTE35W maintenance crews started pre-treating our corridors on Tuesday and have been spot treating since then," spokesman Robert Hinkle said Thursday afternoon. "Our crews are now assisting emergency responders to manage the accident scene on 35W, and will continue treating the highways through the weekend and into next week."
At a press conference, Mayor Betsy Price said it had been a difficult day for the city and said that her heart was broken. She suggested that it was improper to discuss what or who may have been at fault.
"Let's not think about the blame game," Price said.
One photograph from the fire department showed a firefighter breaking open a bag of salt to use on the highway. Mike Drivdahl, a fire department spokesman, said he couldn't confirm whether the roads had been salted or sanded before the crash.
As the crash gained attention, locally and nationally, there was speculation on social media that roads had not been properly treated.
There were also two deadly crashes in Dallas late Wednesday into Thursday due to icy roadways, with a total of three people killed. One of the crashes involved a pileup of 18 vehicles.
A "mass casualty incident" is unfolding on Interstate 35W just north of downtown Fort Worth, where dozens of vehicles collided and left drivers trapped, firefighters say.— NBC DFW (@NBCDFW) February 11, 2021
Latest: https://t.co/GVJzMBYJaY pic.twitter.com/Pw40oxBRmT
Police announced on social media that a family reunification center was set up at the Riverside Community Center, at 3700 E. Belknap St., where family members could pick up people involved in the Fort Worth crash. About a dozen cars were outside the community center on Thursday morning.
About 30 people from the wreck were taken to the center. People who were in the crash but did not need to go to the hospital waited to be picked up by family or friends throughout the morning and afternoon, Fort Worth police Officer Jimmy Pollozani said.
Other people who showed up to the location were trying to find their loved ones or confirm if they had been involved in the collisions.
Juan Gerred told the Star-Telegram his daughter hadn't shown up for work and was not answering her phone, so he decided to go to the community center to get information.
He and his family waited at the center, hoping to hear any information on his daughter. At about noon, he held a grocery bag with snacks and a Monster energy drink and described the frustration of not knowing.
"There are a lot of Jane Does and John Does still," he said. "We can only hope for the best and will go from there."
Pollozani said officials were gathering the names of those who were taken to the hospital from the crash and passing those names along to people waiting inside the center "so they can meet up with their loved ones."
"We're doing the best we can to try and provide as much information as we can for the family members here waiting to hear from their loved ones," he said.
He also encouraged people to follow the police department on Twitter for information.
"As you can understand, this is a very traumatic event for everybody involved," he said. "From first responders, to people in the wreck, to survivors. So all we ask is all of the city of Fort Worth to come together and pray for these families during such a traumatic event that occurred this morning."
Scene remains active
There continued to be long delays on I-35W Thursday afternoon, with southbound lanes closed surrounding the crash. It was not clear how long lane closures could last, but Pollozani said officials would likely be clearing the road into the evening.
Price said the city activated the Emergency Operations Center to help manage the response to the crash.
As of Wednesday evening, there were 124 available ICU beds in the Trauma Service Area E of Texas, which covers 19 counties including Tarrant. That was the most recent available update.
On Thursday afternoon, John Peter Smith Hospital said 21 patients from vehicle crashes had been brought to JPS through the day, but hospital officials did not know which crashes they were in.
No patients died at JPS. Of the 21, four were critical and the rest were stable. All 21 patients had made contact with their loved ones.
Zavadsky noted medics were worried about the cold, with temperatures in the mid-20s, and the possibility that people still trapped in vehicles could develop hypothermia. MedStar had several ambulance buses on the scene where people could warm up.
Thirteen ambulances responded to the scene, Zavadsky said.
Staff writers Domingo Ramirez Jr., Gordon Dickson, Yffy Yossifor and Nichole Manna contributed to this report.
(c)2021 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram