VICKERY, Ohio — Visibility along the Ohio Turnpike was poor as Luc LaFreniere drove back to State College, Pa.
The doctoral student was returning Wednesday from Ann Arbor but had trouble seeing what was in front of him during a steady snowstorm. Then, the haze cleared enough to spot “tons of cars” only about 100 yards away.
He reacted quickly, “stomping on my brakes like I’m trying to put out a fire.” His Toyota 4Runner came to a halt in the far left lane.
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“I almost hit the semi in front of me,” he said of the chain-collision crashes that covered less than 2 miles on the turnpike in Sandusky County, killing three people and critically injuring an Ohio Highway Patrol trooper. More than a dozen others were injured in the same or nearby chain-reaction wrecks that involved nearly 90 vehicles — some that were just caught in the middle and became stranded.
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At one point while he sat there for the next five hours, Mr. LaFreniere's battery died, and he was able to revive it with jumper cables from another motorist. After exiting the turnpike, he found a gas station that still had fuel and got snarled in traffic jams on U.S. 20. He ended up staying overnight in a Clyde hotel.
According to an Ohio Highway Patrol spokesman, the pileup began at 1:25 p.m. with a crash near mile marker 102 in the eastbound lanes and grew to 16 vehicles. Hannah Matheny, 20, of Parma, who was a passenger in a Ford Focus driven by Claire T. Arble, was killed in that crash, as was Grzegorz A. Piwowarczyk, 42, of Palatine, Ill., who was driving a tractor-trailer rig.
Trooper Andrew Clouser was injured in the same pileup about 2:05 p.m. when he got out of his patrol car and was struck by a vehicle and pinned against another one.
A second accident, also in the eastbound lane, occurred west of there near milepost 101. Janice M. Robb, 66, of Schererville, Ind., who was a passenger in a Chevrolet Venture minivan, died in that pileup, which involved 20 vehicles.
Ms. Robb was traveling with her husband, Dwayne Robb, and their son. Mr. Robb, the driver of the minivan, was listed in fair condition Thursday at ProMedica Toledo Hospital. It was unclear whether Ms. Arble was treated at a hospital.
Fourteen patients from the turnpike crashes went to ProMedica Memorial Hospital in Fremont. Ten patients were transferred to ProMedica Toledo Hospital, including two pediatric patients who were later discharged.
Hospital spokesmen could not provide the condition of the patients. Several of those who went to the hospital in Fremont were discharged and the American Red Cross provided temporary lodging for them.
While the OHP has not yet released a cause or further details about the accidents, a trained accident reconstruction specialist, Jonathan D. Shackelford, said there's no question the pavement must have been slippery at the time of the wrecks, based on the amount of snow and ice he saw in several photographs he agreed to examine for The Blade.
The photos also show there was likely limited visibility, according to Mr. Shackelford, currently a sworn deputy and accident reconstructionist for the sheriff's department in Warren County, Kentucky, and the owner of Shackelford Recon Services, LLC, of Bowling Green, Ky., a private consulting firm.
“You can see in the distance there are some visibility issues going on,” said Mr. Shackelford, also a former accident reconstructionist for the sheriff's department in Logan County, Kentucky.
He said time, distance, and motion calculations are necessary to be more specific about the visibility issues. He also said he would try to find drivers and passengers who snapped photos instantly after the crash, if he were doing the investigation. More evidence could be garnered between the time lag between the split-second when the first accident occurred and the time it took for a Blade photographer to arrive on the scene, Mr. Shackelford said.
“It’s hard to tell from some of those [photos] because [the accident scene] was just a mangled mess,” he said.
Even so, Mr. Shackelford said, he would not have expected to see as much snow and ice on the pavement, given the number of vehicles using it and the heat that the pavement absorbs from the sun.
“If the roads looked like that at the time of the crash, I can’t believe you didn’t have [more] multiple crashes,” Mr. Shackelford said. “If the roads looked like that at the time of the crash, those are bad roads to be driving on — especially at 45 or 50 mph.”
The Ohio Turnpike’s speed limit is 70 mph, except in construction zones. At the time of the collisions, most counties in northwest Ohio were under Level 3 snow emergencies, which mean only essential personnel are to be on the roads. But authorities historically have not attempted to enforce such bans on the turnpike or area freeways.
After Trooper Clouser, 29, called from the scene for help, he was taken to Firelands Regional Medical Center in Sandusky and was transferred to Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center, Toledo, where he was treated for injuries to his abdomen and legs, said Lt. Anne Ralston, of the highway patrol.
Trooper Clouser remained in serious condition Thursday in the hospital’s intensive care unit, but was in “high spirits,” and surrounded by family and other troopers, she said.
In addition to the 36 vehicles entangled in the two separate pileups, there were 50 vehicles stranded between the two crash sites, with most receiving little or no damage, but were parked bumper-to-bumper and couldn't be moved for hours, troopers said.
According to the Sandusky County Sheriff's Office, traffic being diverted from the turnpike and accidents led to tie-ups in both directions on U.S. 20 and on the U.S. 6 by-pass around Fremont through the night.
Chief Deputy Bruce Hirt said the dispatchers in the county's 911 center were overwhelmed with calls from motorists in accidents and had to put callers on a waiting list to get tow service.
“We had problems in getting wreckers, especially for the semis,” he said. “There was a 2 to 3 hour window to get a wrecker. I understand one of the wrecker services was 30 calls behind.”
Deputy Hirt said the accidents on the turnpike and crashes on state and county roads tied up every available law enforcement officer in the county as well as emergency vehicles of local volunteer fire departments.
Authorities worked through the night to clear most of the tractor-trailers and other vehicles from the turnpike and to remove the cargo of spilled trailers, said Adam Greenslade, turnpike commission spokesman.
By midmorning, one of the eastbound lanes had been cleared enough to allow traffic back on the toll road, but traffic remained heavy on the roadways that feed into the turnpike interchanges.
The highway patrol was unable on Thursday to provide details of what caused the crashes on the turnpike, nor could they give a narrative on the events that led to the accidents because troopers were still gathering information from witnesses.
“I think it’s fairly obvious that the road and weather conditions were very poor at that time and afterwards,” Lieutenant Ralston said.
A crash report was not available and the lieutenant speculated that the investigation could take weeks to complete given the number of people and vehicles involved.
“There were so many vehicles involved, so many first responders on scene, that we are trying to work our way back now,” Lieutenant Ralston said.
Staff writers Taylor Dungjen and Tom Henry contributed to this report.
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