Wednesday, October 13, 2010
During our careers, we have many remarkable calls that become the stories that we pass on to our future generations of firefighters.
But…there is also that “ONE”-the BIG one-that was the game changer; the one that, at THAT moment defined your career or at the very least, put the exclamation point on it.
For firefighters, the big one is typically their biggest fire. You know; a very large structure or one that races through a city block or two.
Not me! I had several structural fires, but not the ONE that would cap a career.
What I DID have was a field fire (yawn)…
That was the cause of the largest motor vehicle accident scene in the history of our fire department.
And on this day-ten years later-I can still recall the site, sounds and smells of what was the largest incident that I would manage in my career. It was Friday, October 13, 2000.
I was not at work on that day, because on the night before, Thursday, October 12, 2000, our department responded to a single semi-tractor/trailer accident on the interstate. The truck left the roadway and traveled down a very steep embankment before coming to rest.
I navigated the long steep bank to where the vehicle rested. But, there was a drainage ditch between me and the cab of the truck.
So, I attempted to traverse the ditch by leaping over it. Unknown to me was that there was big rocks covered by grass and my right foot landed on one. My foot slipped and I severely twisted my right knee AND my low back. I was in some serious pain. For those of you who don’t know, I had had seven previous surgeries on my right knee.
We got done at the bottom of the embankment and I had the guys throw me a rope and I managed to get back to my vehicle. The worst pain that I have ever felt in my life was when I had to bend my right knee to get it in the car. From there; I didn’t even go to the fire station. I went straight to the emergency room; where they injected both sites with pain medication. My right knee was wrapped, I was given instructions to see my surgeon, apply ice and to stay off of it. I was given prescriptions for pain.
On Friday the 13th in October of 2000, I was following my doctor’s orders when we got toned out for a field fire along the interstate. Within 30 seconds of that page out came another page for a “multi-vehicle accident involving several vehicles at the same location”.
What you are about to read is the narrative that I wrote ten years ago, following the biggest incident of my career. I have italicized it.
Clover Township Fire Department is located in Woodhull, IL on Illinois Route 17 and just east of Interstate 74 in west central Illinois and in Henry County.
The department covers 48 square miles of fire district and 12 miles of Interstate 74 with 25 volunteers, three engines and a medium heavy rescue vehicle. The population served in our fire district is approximately 1100 residents. The department is known for their distinctive fluorescent red fire apparatus.
On Friday, October 13, 2000 at 1310 hours, the department was dispatched by Knox County 911 to a field fire next to the interstate at the 34-1/2 mile marker on the eastbound side.
A second page was struck immediately thereafter, advising us of a multi-vehicle accident at the same location.
As I was leaving the house, I contacted our dispatcher for mutual aid to Rio, Oxford and Oneida/Wataga.
While enroot, I could see that traffic was already backing up in the eastbound lane of the interstate. As I got on the interstate, I encountered vehicles spanning both traffic lanes AND the emergency lane, effectively blocking the emergency vehicles that would be arriving very soon.
I drove along the emergency lane, instructing drivers to get into the traffic lane, so that emergency vehicles, including ambulances, could get to the scene that was one and one-half miles away.
As I got closer to the scene of the accident, I encountered very dense smoke. Fearing a collision, I stopped my vehicle, exited and radioed my department to watch for me and to don SCBAs for the initial attack alongside the interstate, as the fire was approaching the accident scene, pushed by a 20 – 30 mph westerly wind.
Our initial response was Truck #1, Rescue 1 and FOUR firefighters. I called Truck #2 to come to the accident scene as well, instead of going to the field. A call for additional manpower got me five more firefighters from our department.
The accident scene was completely encapsulated in thick, white smoke. It was abundantly clear to me that we had to get on the fire in order to make the accident scene tenable for rescuers, so we took on the fire nearest the interstate and proceeded to improve visibility. Then, we were able to advance our vehicles to near the accident scene, where fire was approaching a scene that had a strong smell of gasoline from leaking vehicle tanks.
As three firefighters advanced to the main body of fire, I moved up to the accident scene and extinguished two, small fires adjacent to the roadway. The other responding fire departments were instructed to concentrate on the field fire.
While still engaged in fighting the field fire, one department had to leave to respond to an accident on the highway that was being used as a detour to the interstate. The field fire was extinguished at 1350 with the help of a farmer using a tractor and disk.
The smoke had cleared and we were able to see vehicles-one on top of the other, two that were forming an arch, a mid-size car that had a full size pick up sitting on its hood with its ball hitch sticking through the windshield and a mangled, twisted mess of metal and glass the likes of which I had never seen before.
No one was prepared for what they saw. It literally stopped the EMTs in their tracks. With most everyone self-extricating and standing outside of their vehicles, the EMTs weren’t sure where to establish a triage area. They chose the median and were soon packaging patients for transport.
Extrication was required for two occupants of a sub-compact auto. The windshield was removed, the car was topped, doors popped and the occupants were packaged and removed. What was unusual was that the front bumper of this car wasn’t damaged, though there was considerable damage to the passenger side of the vehicle. The air bags had not deployed. It was in this vehicle that we had the only fatality. In all; six ambulances transported 12 patients.
The scene was under control at 1410.
A total of sixteen vehicles were involved in four, separate accident within the smoke and included five semi-tractor/trailers, nine passenger cars and two pick-up trucks.
The State Police reconstructed the accident and submitted their report.
On October 13, 2000 at 1:00 pm, Units 1 – 9 were eastbound on I-74 at milepost 34-1/2. Units 1 – 9 became enveloped in heavy smoke from a nearby field fire that started south and west of the actual traffic crash location. The field fire was ignited by equipment being used in the field to lay tile. Strong southerly winds were present and the fire spread north and east rapidly. Units 1 – 9 were involved in a chain reaction traffic crash as a result of very poor visibility from smoke. When I arrived on the scene the visibility was nearly zero. The smoke was thick and my eyes immediately started burning and I found myself gagging (state trooper).
Unit 1, a Chevy S-10 pick-up struck Unit 9, a Freightliner semi-tractor/trailer and drove ahead of Unit 9 and stopped on the inside median approximately 200 feet ahead of Unit 9.
At some point, Unit 2, a Pontiac Grand Prix struck Unit 9. Unit 2 was struck by another unit from behind. Unit 2 was at rest when it was struck by Unit 3, a Plymouth Neon on the driver side.
Unit 3 was struck by Unit 4, a Chevy WT 1500 pick-up on the passenger side and subsequently struck Unit 2.
Unit 4 struck Unit 3 on the passenger side and was then struck by Unit 7, a Pontiac Grand Am from behind.
Unit 5, a Plymouth Voyager van was struck from behind by Unit 4 while at rest and then struck Unit 9 from behind.
It is unknown what struck Unit 6, a Chevy Corsica.
Unit 7 struck Unit 4 from behind and was struck by Unit 8, a Honda Accord from behind.
Unit 8 struck Unit 7 from behind.
Unit 9 was at rest through out the crash.
On October 13, 2000 at 1:00 pm, Units 1 – 4 were eastbound on I-74 at milepost 34-1/2. Units 1 – 4 became enveloped in heavy smoke from a nearby field fire that started south and west of the actual traffic crash location. Strong southerly winds were present and the fire spread north and east rapidly. Units 1 – 4 were involved in a chain reaction traffic crash as a result of very poor visibility from smoke.
Unit 1, a Freightliner semi-tractor/trailer stopped on the roadway at ½ mile east of milepost 34.
Unit 3, an Oldsmobile Achieva came upon Unit 1 and came to rest before striking Unit 1.
Unit 3 came to rest facing northeast as a result of emergency braking.
Unit 4, a Plymouth Voyager van came upon Unit 3 and came to rest before striking Unit 3.
Unit 2, a Kenworth semi-tractor/trailer struck Unit 4 in the rear.
Unit 4, as a result of being struck by Unit 2, struck Unit 3 head on.
Unit 3, as a result of being struck by Unit 4, struck Unit 1.
Unit 1, a Honda Civic and Unit 2, a Volvo were eastbound on I-74 at milepost 34-1/2. Units became enveloped in heavy smoke from a nearby field fire.
Unit 1 came upon Unit 2, who was stopped.
Unit 1 swerved, but struck Unit 2 with right, front bumper.
Unit 1 spun and came to rest facing west.
Unit 1, a Freightliner semi-tractor/trailer and Unit 2, a Kenworth semi-tractor/trailer were traveling eastbound on I-74 at milepost 34-1/2. Units were enveloped in heavy smoke from a nearby field fire.
Unit 1 struck Unit 2 from the rear, as Unit 2 came to a halt.
The fire was determined to be accidental in nature. It started in a cornfield adjacent to the interstate. Tiling work was being done in the field at the time of the incident.
The responding agencies were: Clover Township Fire Department, Rio Township Fire Department, Oxford Fire Protection District, Oneida/Wataga Fire Department, Tri-County Ambulance Service, Galesburg Hospitals Ambulance Service, Illinois District 7 State Police, Woodhull Police Department, Henry County Sheriffs Department, Knox County Sheriffs Department, Knox County Coroner and three wrecker companies.
The main problem at this incident was communication. With so many agencies responding, it was difficult to break through all of the radio traffic. It was suggested at the de-briefing that a cell phone be utilized at incidents of this type, which, based on this experience was an excellent idea.
De-briefing was important for this incident.
Fire, ambulance and police sat down together on Saturday, October 14, 2000 and went through the incident step-by-step. There was a free exchange of ideas and information.
With regards to incident command, there was a “shared” command at this scene, not by design, but out of necessity.
Each agency relied on their skill and concentrated on their areas of responsibility.
There was no time for “gray areas”; problems were addressed as they arose by the appropriate agency.
The police coordinated traffic control, accident investigation and reconstruction, vehicle removal and controlled the news media.
Tri-County Ambulance Service coordinated patient assessment, treatment, packaging and transport with the assistance of Galesburg Hospitals Ambulance Service.
Clover Township Fire Department coordinated fire suppression and vehicle extrication.
The scene was cleared at 1820; exactly five hours after first arrival.
There are some moments that aren’t included in the narrative that I wrote 10 years ago.
First, we had to put the one fatality in the back of our rescue because we wanted the body out of sight and the coroner had not arrived.
Without thinking, I told one of my firefighters to go to the rescue and get me the halligan. He came back to me in a panic, because he came upon the body and didn’t know what to make of it.
He completely broke down when told that nothing could be done for that victim. So; don’t use your vehicle as a temporary morgue unless everyone at the scene is aware of it.
Also; when I arrived on scene and couldn’t go any further do to the dense smoke, I had stopped my vehicle and gotten out because I couldn’t see my hand in front of me. Out of nowhere, a hand grabbed my shoulder and this booming voice said, “we have people trapped. Let’s go.”
I just about jumped out of my skin, told the state trooper that we had to get the fire first; he wanted to argue, but he couldn’t breathe very well, due to the heavy smoke, so he ran back up to the accident as we prepared to extinguish the fire.
And, this day was spent on the injured knee and bad back from the night before. I had a knee brace on the right knee and was walking with the assistance of a cane. Imagine trying to ambulate around a scene that was three lanes wide and a half mile long with a bad knee and back.
Now; I’m not superstitious, but…
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