At least six people were killed and dozens injured early Thursday morning in a massive crash involving more than 100 vehicles in Fort Worth as a winter storm dropped freezing rain, sleet and snow on parts of the U.S.
It was a scene that emergency responders had trained for, but never wanted to face, they said later. As emergency personnel began to arrive they began to grasp the enormity of the task ahead of them.
At the scene of the crash on Interstate 35 near downtown Fort Worth, a tangle of semitrailers, cars and trucks had crashed into each other and had turned every which way, with some vehicles on top of others.
The Tarrant County Medical Examiner has so far released names of two of the deceased: Aaron Luke Watson and Tiffany Louann Gerred. They were aged 45 and 34, respectively.
“The vehicles are just mangled,” said Matt Zavadsky, spokesman for MedStar, which provides ambulance service for the area. “Multiple tow trucks are on scene. It’s going to take a lot to disentangle this wreck.”
Zavadsky has been with Medstar for 12 years, but said he had “never seen anything like this.”
Thirty-six people were taken to hospitals from the crash, several with critical injuries, Zavadsky said. “It was as if there were two scenes. Ambulances that arrived at the scene from the north took patients to hospitals on the north side of Fort Worth. Ambulances that arrived from the south took patients to hospitals in the south part of Fort Worth,” he said.
The first calls began coming in between 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., Zavadsky said.
The Fort Worth Fire Department quickly labeled the event an MCI or multiple casualty incident. The crash occurred in the TEXPress lanes, in the median of I-35W. Robert Hinkle, spokesman for North Tarrant Express, said NTE & NTE35W crews were assisting emergency responders in managing the accident scene.
“This is an incident our agencies train for but hope and pray never happens,” said Zavadsky. “That mutual relationship and that training (among the various departments) served this community very, very well.”
“It was dark, it was cold, it was freezing rain and the fact that these departments were able to get as many people off this scene to area hospitals, to areas to be protected, was amazing,” he said.
“And that’s one of the things we worry about with the first responders. Part of what we’re doing here currently is making sure we have medical personnel here for the first responders because this is a very difficult environment to be working in. We want to make sure they are safe, that they’re not experiencing hypothermia,” he said. “We were very fortunate to be able to get a couple of buses from the Fire Department to actually put some of the victims from the crash who were not patients but who could have become patients because of hypothermia so they could get out of the cold environment.”
Temperatures hovered in the 20s throughout the day with wind chills in the teens.
“The roadway was so treacherous from the ice that several of the first responders were falling on the scene,” Zavadsky said.
He said his crews carry a sand and salt mixture in the ambulances, which they began using at the scene. At one point, he said, one of the ambulances was hit, but it sustained only minor damage and the crew members were fine.
North Tarrant Express spokesman Hinkle said NTE & NTE35W maintenance crews started pre-treating the corridors on Tuesday morning in anticipation of inclement weather, and have been treating continuously as they monitor the roadway.
“We will continue treating the highways through the weekend and into next week, as long as the storm is active, Hinkle said. “Our crews treat the entire corridor, managed lanes, general purpose lanes, frontage roads and ramps, and operate under the same procedure as the Texas Department of Transportation. Additionally, our message boards throughout the corridors have been alerting drivers of the adverse weather conditions and encouraging them to drive with caution.”
At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Fort Worth Police Chief Neil Noakes said about 133 cars were involved in the accident. He said it was preliminary, but ice appeared to a factor in the accident.
Noakes said three police officers were injured responding to the call and one at the scene. None of those injuries were serious.
Police set up a reunification center for family members at a community center.
“My heart is breaking for our community as we come to learn about the extent of the losses we are experiencing from today’s accident,” Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said in a Facebook post. “Our community is pouring out support, and I know that so many of you are asking for a way to help. Right now, what Fort Worth needs most is your prayers – for the families, the injured, and the first responders. We will share updates in the coming days with any additional ways to support those in need during this difficult time.”
Fort Worth was not the only city to suffer some major incidents from the weather.
Farther south, in suburban Austin, more than two dozen vehicles were involved in a pileup on an icy highway, and five people were taken to a hospital, emergency officials said.
The storm came as a polar vortex – swirling air that normally sits over the Earth’s poles – moved near the U.S.-Canada border, resulting in colder weather farther south than usual, said Steve Goss, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
“As a result we’re getting unusually or unseasonably cold air that’s spilling south across a good portion of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains,” he said.
In Tennessee, police responded to about 30 traffic collisions and some flights were delayed at Memphis International Airport after freezing rain and sleet fell. In Kentucky, the governor declared a state of emergency to free up funding and help agencies coordinate as they responded to reports of slick roads and downed power lines. And in southern Indiana, schools and government offices closed.
Goss said that smaller disturbances moving through the polar jet stream will bring “a shot of winter weather” into southern portions of the country.
He said some areas that don’t normally get snowfall will likely see heavy amounts over the next several days. He said current estimates show some areas of the Southern Plains could get a foot or more.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.