published Sunday, December 5th, 2010

Echoes from the fog


by Emily Bregel

Like a bleeding apparition, the man emerged from a fog thicker than anything patrol officer Bill Dyer had ever seen. Heavy and opaque, the cloud that shrouded the highway was as impenetrable as a blizzard's whiteout.

Hunks of skin hung from the man's face as he staggered toward Dyer's Bradley County patrol car, sitting on the northbound Interstate 75 exit ramp in Calhoun, Tenn.

"We need help," the man said, his voice shaking. "We need help."

Dyer had just gotten off the highway, thinking he had received a false report of a wreck. Even when he saw the injured man, he assumed that a one- or two-car fender-bender was ahead. He rolled down his window to tell the man to lie down while he called for an ambulance.

Then the sounds began wafting through the fog into Dyer's open window: the smashing of metal on metal, and later, explosions and screams.

"Just one right after another, on and on and on," recalled Dyer, now 47, in a recent interview. "I could hear them crashing. I knew I had to try to do something."

Twenty years ago, on Dec. 11, 1990, Dyer was the first responder to the worst fatal accident on Tennessee highways in nearly two decades, and the most deadly fog-induced wreck in state history, according to the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

Ultimately 12 people died and 42 were injured in the 99-vehicle pileup, which began on the southbound highway when one tractor-trailer rear-ended another in the dense fog.

[+] Click to Enlarge

As the uninjured truckers inspected their vehicles for damage, a four-door sedan hit the second tractor-trailer. That trailer carried 10 tanks of dicumyl peroxide, a hazardous, flammable chemical used in the rubber and plastics industry. Then a third semi crashed into the sedan, pushing it underneath the second trailer.

Fire erupted, and the Wisconsin couple inside the sedan burned to death in the first of many chain-reaction crashes.

The collisions continued for what seemed like forever to survivors, as one fog-blind driver after another slammed into the growing wreck.

The crash site ultimately stretched for a half-mile in the north- and southbound lanes. The victims hailed from across the continent, from Canada to Florida, including four from Tennessee.

More than 65 emergency responders -- police, fire, EMS and social service agencies -- from Chattanooga to Knoxville rushed to a scene more gruesome and haunting than many had ever witnessed.

For the rest of the day, emergency responders pulled charred, unrecognizable corpses and pieces of bodies from smoldering, melted wreckage, collecting the remains in a makeshift morgue on the median strip.

  • photo
    Chattanooga Times Free Press Photo by Alex McMahan - Dec. 11, 1990 - Fire department and rescue personnel stand in the charred wreckage after the 1990 pileup on I-75. The wreck involved 99 vehicles, killed 12 people and injured 42.

Two dozen tractor-trailer rigs -- including a propane tank that miraculously didn't explode -- were involved, crushing vehicles between them. A Chevy Blazer was smashed accordion-style into a lump of metal half its original size.

Survivors who made it to the median recall waiting, confused and powerless, as they listened to the crashes continue around them, barely glimpsing fires blazing through the fog.

The crash launched years of litigation that charged negligence against Tennessee and a nearby industry alleged to have contributed to the killer fog with its water vapor and industrial emissions.

The pileup also brought about long-called-for updates to the fog zone's minimal alert system, ushering in a state-of-the-art surveillance and warning system. The zone has had no fog-related fatalities since the system was launched in 1993.

On that Tuesday morning, Dyer put in an urgent call for backup and braced himself for the worst as he carefully pulled his car back onto the fog-covered northbound side of the highway, gripping the steering wheel with both hands. He listened to crashes on the southbound side until he thought he had passed the major crash site.

He parked, then ran across the median toward the disaster, praying he could flag down oncoming traffic before more vehicles hit the deadly cloak of fog.

IN THE MIDST

Pulling 150 Christmas trees in a trailer behind his truck, 29-year-old Johnny Weaver cruised down I-75 on the morning of Dec. 11. He had set off before dawn with a friend on one of many annual trips from his family's tree farm in Jefferson, N.C., to tree retailers in Chattanooga.

Wearing sunglasses to shield his eyes from the bright morning sun, Weaver approached Calhoun, Tenn., about 9 a.m.

As he neared the state Route 163 overpass, visibility went to zero within seconds and fog engulfed his truck. He was zooming down the highway blind.

Weaver crashed into a truck that materialized out of the cloud a few feet ahead. Almost immediately cars began hitting him from behind.

"It was one right after another," Weaver said in a recent phone interview. "The most scary thing was, you didn't know which way to run, which way to safety."

His truck ended up pushed into the median, and he and his friend rushed to the relative safety of the grassy strip. They waited, tightlipped, listening to wrecks and glimpsing flames from vehicles burning and tires exploding around them.

"It was a bad nightmare," he said.

CRASH VICTIMS

* Jerry Dodrill, 52, Seth, W.Va.

* Donald Albrecht, Key West, Fla.

* Alan Day, 39, Howell, Mich.

* Melinda Jones, 33, Chattanooga

* Barbara Lang, 58, Windsor, Ontario, Canada

* Judy Russell McKeehan, 51, Athens, Tenn.

* Craig Piper, 30, Phenix City, Ala.

* Richard Platt, 60, Farragut, Tenn.

* Patsy Robbins, 52, Athens, Tenn.

* Frances Shattock, Dillwyn, Va.

* Leonard John Ellerbrock, 69, Washington Island, Wis.

* Eileen Phyllis Ellerbrock, 67, Washington Island, Wis.

Source: Associated Press archives

Crashes soon began on the northbound side, where Chattanooga resident Chris DeBolt, 38 at the time, was heading to Knoxville on a sales call.

In a recent interview, DeBolt said he hit a "curtain" of fog just south of the Route 163 overpass.

DeBolt still was going at least 50 miles per hour, aware that a hulking tractor-trailer was somewhere behind him, when he saw a man appear in the middle of the road, waving frantically for him to pull over.

DeBolt veered left before reaching the man and skidded into the median. Fearful that more cars could follow him, he jumped out of his car and looked back at the road. It was then he saw the same tractor-trailer, at high speed, slam into a stopped Toyota Corolla, crushing the Corolla into another tractor rig.

He stared at the wreck, realizing he had almost taken the place of the woman crushed to death in what was the final collision of the northbound highway's pileups.

According to the federal report on the accident, the 51-year-old woman's legs were sheared off in the crash, among other injuries.

DeBolt heard an explosion on the southbound side of the highway. Looking across the median, he saw a tractor-trailer burst into a "ball of fire," he said.

The rest of the morning was a blur, DeBolt said.

"It was pretty much slow motion. I kind of wandered around trying to help people," he said.

DeBolt didn't realize the extent of the disaster until he later got back in his car, detouring around the wreck and continuing to Knoxville, and heard body counts on the news.

He never got to talk to the man who had flagged him down and saved his life.

RESCUE EFFORTS

On the southbound side of I-75, Dyer continued trying to flag cars down. Each time one sped past him, he heard a crash moments later.

When oncoming traffic slowed and finally stopped, Dyer hitched a ride into the fog on the running board of an arriving ambulance. He began going car to car, trying to apply tourniquets and give first aid to those he found alive.

"I'd seen people killed in car wrecks before. That wasn't the first time I'd seen that," he recalled recently. "But it was one thing to respond to an accident and another one to almost be in the middle of it, hearing the crashes, hearing the people screaming."

As one of the first on the scene, the worst part was feeling helpless, Dyer said.

DETAILS FROM ACCIDENT REPORT

The National Weather Service's forecast for Calhoun, Tenn., on the morning of Dec. 11, 1990, called for "sunny and mild" conditions with highs in the mid-60s. There was no forecast for fog.

Injuries to six of the 12 accident victims was described as "incineration." Two other people died from second- and third-degree burns over 90 percent of their bodies. Four died from trauma, including abdominal hemorrhage, a fractured neck and a 51-year-old woman whose legs were cut off in the crash.

Source: National Transportation Safety Board highway accident report, issued September 1992



TIPS: DRIVING IN FOG

Fog forms when the temperature drops and invisible water vapor in the air condenses to form suspended water droplets. Fog can reduce visibility to one-quarter mile or less, creating hazardous driving conditions.

* Drive with lights on low beam. High beams will only be reflected back off the fog and impair visibility.

* Reduce speed and watch your speedometer. Fog creates a visual illusion of slow motion, when you may actually be speeding.

* Listen for traffic you cannot see. Open your window to hear better.

* Use wipers and defrosters as necessary.

* Use the right edge of the road or painted road markings as a guide.

* Be patient. Do not pass lines of traffic.

* Do not stop on a freeway or heavily traveled road. If your car stalls or becomes disabled, turn your vehicle's lights off and take your foot off of the brake pedal. People tend to follow taillights when driving in fog. Move away from the vehicle to avoid injury.

Source: National Weather Service



HISTORY OF ACCIDENTS

The I-75 fog zone near Calhoun had a history of wrecks in heavy-morning fogs. This section of highway opened in December 1973.

* March 9, 1974 -- 18 vehicles, three deaths, 10 injuries

* April 19, 1974 -- Nine vehicles, nine injuries

* June 12, 1976 -- Four vehicles, no injuries or deaths

* Dec. 16, 1977 -- 14 vehicles, seven injuries

* Nov. 5, 1978 -- 63-plus vehicles, 46 injuries

* April 15, 1979 -- 18 vehicles, three deaths, 14 injuries

* Dec. 11, 1990 -- 99 vehicles, 12 deaths, 42 injuries

Source: Chattanooga Times archives, citing the National Transportation Safety Board

"There's only so much you can do. You've only got just your hands and a radio," he said. Still, he said, "we were able to help a lot of people, pull people out of cars that were on fire."

But like all the rescue workers on duty that day, he found many who were beyond saving.

As Dyer worked at the tail end of the crashes on the southbound interstate, Dr. Jerry DeVane was working his way up from the head of the wreck on the same side of the highway.

DeVane, then medical director for Bradley County EMS, was one of the first medical responders on the scene. He had heard Dyer's quavering voice shouting over his EMS portable radio that morning: "Send me everything you have."

DeVane had sped north to the crash scene, slowing as he entered the fog, a "big gray ocean across the sky," he later recalled in a written memoir.

After crossing the median and parking at the roadside on the southbound lanes, he picked his way through the burning wreckage. The fog cover was almost complete, and he could see only a few feet. He walked beneath the state Route 163 overpass without seeing the bridge overhead.

"It was surreal. I'd never been involved in something where you were blinded and had this level of casualties," he said in an interview.

Rescue workers later said the fog helped shield them from the full magnitude of the accident, blotting out the chaos beyond a small bubble of visibility. For DeVane, the fog cover allowed him to work methodically, treating and assessing patients alongside an inferno.

"That kept you from being overwhelmed," he said.

DeVane passed cars and trucks with minimal damage tucked among vehicles unrecognizably destroyed. He gave his fire retardant coat to a woman who had fled her car with her uncovered baby, blue from the December cold.

He came upon a Chevy Blazer crushed into a 4-foot-long lump of metal and later learned the occupants had gotten out and reached the shoulder seconds before it was demolished by an oncoming vehicle.

Survivors ran to him, begging him to save their trapped loved ones, lost behind a wall of flame. But he focused on triage and logistics: treating and directing resources to as many people with a chance of survival as possible, and moving quickly past those he knew already were gone.

It wasn't until hours later -- when the adrenaline had subsided and dozens of survivors had been taken away -- that doubts and guilt crept in to replace his trained emergency medicine response.

Surveying the bodies in the makeshift morgue, DeVane wondered if he could have done more.

"It doesn't come back to you until after the fact," he said. "After it was all over and the fog had lifted, and people had been extracted ... that's when it kind of came back. That sticks with you for a while."

The fires from ignited vehicles burned long and hot enough to melt the asphalt of the highway, which eventually had to be repaved, Dyer said.

"It was unbelievable. ... What had been a semi truck was reduced to just burnt-up ashes," he said.

When Ray Rucker, then maintenance officer for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, arrived later, the fog had dissipated and the scene lay under blue skies.

The tangle of incinerated vehicles on both sides of the highway was the "most horrific" accident anyone had seen since the 1970s, said Rucker, now TDOT Region 2 director in Chattanooga.

"It was just a horror to look at," he said.

The pileup precipitated one of the first uses of a "peer debriefing" counseling session for emergency responders, recalled Ken Wilkerson, chief of Hamilton County EMS. He had been chief for two years and was a veteran firefighter when he went to the crash scene.

Even for seasoned veterans, the scope of the accident was shocking, he said.

But that day, "there were an awful lot of folks that had a lot of first-time experiences," he said. "One of the firefighters who responded, it was his first call. And from what I understand, it was his last call. He couldn't do it anymore."

AFTER THE CRASH

The I-75 fog zone near Calhoun had been the site of six multiple-vehicle accidents between March 1974 and April 1979, resulting in six deaths and 86 injuries. And the 1990 crash marked the third time in 12 years that a fog-induced pileup in the same three-mile fog zone prompted an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The report concluded that drivers with differing reactions to the fog -- some maintained high speeds, some slowed down -- were a major cause of the disaster.

Again, questions were raised about the role of water vapor and other emissions from the nearby Bowater paper mill and its wastewater cooling ponds along the Hiwassee River, about a mile south of the accident site.

Bowater has denied contributing to visibility problems in the low-lying, fog-prone stretch of highway. The company declined to comment for this story.

The state also was criticized for not implementing detailed plans for a new fog-warning system after earlier pileups, particularly the fog-induced accidents of 1978 and 1979.

Only after the deadly 1990 crash, under Gov. Ned McWherter's administration, was a multimillion-dollar fog warning system finally put in place along a 19-mile stretch that previously had offered only reflectors and a single fog-warning sign on either side of the highway.

"It was my sense it should have been dealt with earlier," Jim Hall, planning director for the McWherter administration at the time of the crash, said recently.

"It was unfortunate that it took [multiple] events like that to finally get the kind of action that was needed, which was to put in place the kind of [fog-alert] system that is presently there," said Hall, who lives on Signal Mountain. Two years after the pileup, he was appointed chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, where he served seven years.

A $5.5 million update to the fog-alert system was completed in 1993, following recommendations from the NTSB.

Now, nine fog detectors line the road, monitoring air-moisture levels and calculating visibility. Fourteen radar detectors track vehicle speeds in the fog zone.

The fog and speed sensor readings can trigger warnings to a dispatcher assigned to monitor fog in the area. The officer can activate fog-alert messages to appear on new overhead signs before and throughout the fog zone, and activate lights on roadside fog warning signs.

The officer determines whether visibility is compromised enough to reduce the speed limit in the fog zone on changeable signs. The speed limit can drop from 70 to 50 mph, or to 35 mph in more extreme circumstances.

In a worst-case scenario, the Tennessee Highway Patrol can shut down the highway, remotely closing entrances to the fog zone by deploying swing gates at six on-ramps.

The state-of-the-art system represented a major leap forward in fog detection and driver notification and set a new standard for transportation departments worldwide, transportation officials said.

"At the time, this was the only [fog-alert] system of its kind in the country," said Lt. Tommie Graham of the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

In 2006 the state spent $6.8 million to upgrade the system and add a video feed so highway patrol officers could see fog and traffic patterns.

And the efforts appear to have paid off, transportation officials say. No fog-related pileups have occurred in the fog zone since the new system has been in place. Since the alert system was completed, the fog-zone area has been shut down and traffic rerouted on two occasions.

But some officials and rescue workers maintain there hasn't been a fog comparable to the one that blinded drivers that December morning 20 years ago.

Wilkerson of Hamilton County EMS said the thickness of the fog wasn't notable, but its concentration was.

"There was no gradual build-up. You were in the clear; you were in the fog. It was that sudden," he said.

Dyer said the fog's opaqueness was unparalleled.

"I drive that area every day, but I had never seen it that thick ... like a whiteout like with snow," Dyer said. "If the same circumstances were to present themselves ... it could happen again."

Rucker, of TDOT, disagreed. He said even if such a deadly fog appeared again, the highway would be closed quickly and traffic redirected before that many vehicles could become involved.

"That kind of accident is not happening again," he said.

20 YEARS LATER

First responders, survivors, victims' families and local residents who witnessed the wreck all remember the horrors of that day.

"There were people involved in the wreck that spanned Chattanooga to Knoxville to Polk to Rhea counties," DeVane said. "Twenty years later, you can ask at any EMS or rescue unit and there will be people there that responded and still have vivid recollections of the day."

The crash prompted the development of mutual-aid agreements between first responders in the region, Wilkerson said.

"The necessity for togetherness there paved the way for our routine common responses today," Wilkerson said. "That showed ... none of us were in stand-alone organizations. It showed us the need to have plans in place before events."

Every Dec. 11 for eight years after the pileup, Dyer went to the crash site to pay quiet tribute to the victims.

"There's nothing up there that shows what happened that day," he said. "I'll never forget the faces. ... When I drive through that area, I still see the wreck. I still see the bodies. You look and you see it in your mind."

He never learned what happened to the man who staggered out of the fog and warned him.

For months DeVane, now an emergency room physician at SkyRidge Medical Center in Cleveland, Tenn., fought a sense of dread whenever he drove the fog zone. As a kind of catharsis, he collected newspaper clippings about the pileup and even has a tape of 911 calls made that day. Listening to the tape still gives him chills, he said.

"It took a year before I could drive through that area, even in bright sunshine, without feeling tightness under my clavicles," he said. "It has made an impact on people's lives. ... It will for years and years to come -- both those who lost loved ones and those that actually responded to the accident itself."

Continue reading by following this link to a related story:

Article: Fog-induced wreck prompted lawsuits

Article: 'Horrific, surreal experience,' photographer recalls

about Emily Bregel...

Health care reporter Emily Bregel has worked at the Chattanooga Times Free Press since July 2006. She previously covered banking and wrote for the Life section. Emily, a native of Baltimore, Md., earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Columbia University. She received a first-place award for feature writing from the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists’ Golden Press Card Contest for a 2009 article about a boy with a congenital heart defect. She ...

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Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
enufisenuf said...

Common sense is the most uncommon sense we have. It's not found in Government, the legal system, from cops to judges, the school system, and certainly no among drivers, especially with the added distractons of cell phones and texting today. Society has lost it's ability to use common sense anymore, a bunch of dummies.

December 5, 2010 at 8:03 a.m.

I'm sure that the families of loved ones who were lost in this horrific pileup don't need your comments about "Common Sense". Perhaps you should use your own "Common Sense" and have some Respect for the ones we lost on this day.

December 5, 2010 at 8:50 a.m.
prc said...

It’s the people that start out a point with “common sense” have no sense. To me it shows their weakness. Rather a Stupid point of view. Point is – they were not there. I highly doubt that there was 99 cars of dummies driving that day. It was a very bad accident that caught many by surprise and affected several more.

December 5, 2010 at 11 a.m.
hambone said...

The Bowater plant was completed in the '50s and fog was a problem well before Interstate 75 was built. Those responsible for routing the interstate thru the area should have bore some responsiblity.

December 5, 2010 at 6:22 p.m.

I live in Knoxville and was 28 when this happened. I remember it to this day. I wasn't involved in this terrible tragedy, however even 20 years later I think about how horrific it was and so sad that people lost their lives. I travel through there quite often and I think about that accident EVERY time I pass through the fog area. I hope nothing like this ever happens again. God Bless all those who's lives this impacted.

December 6, 2010 at 1:25 p.m.
chippalini said...

As a paramedic who was there, I want to thank the reporters for a very good recounting of the story. I think everyone who was there will remember this event forever.

The "common sense" person was obivously not there. It went from clear to fog so thick you could not see your own feet, no gradual worsening. As soon as you realized what was happening, you were in the middle of it.

December 11, 2010 at 3:22 p.m.
DLEE63 said...

To all the first responders that day, I say thank you. My loved one, Craig Piper lost his life that fateful day along with others. He was a wonderful father of 2 and a professional driver. Not a dummy. He was a father,husband,brother,uncle and son. His children were only 2 and 7 at time of the accident. None of our lives will ever be the same. It's a tragedy that took place. One I hope that was not in vain. Bless all people that were affected and those that continue to travel that highway.

September 19, 2011 at 7:04 p.m.
Bandit said...

I was there (Car Number 67 in the graphic above) and the stench from Bowater was unusually heavy that morning. I have no doubt their operations mad the fog heavier that day. I drove between Chattanooga and Knoxville often during that time and the stench was VERY heavy in comparison to any other time before or since. As I passed the exit ramp to the right travelling south on I-75, it was as if a "sheet" was thrown across my windshield. Yes, a sheet. Sun was out, which made it worse. The fog was illuminated and obscured, well, everything. I was driving too fast. My 24 year old ego was still in control of my driving. I’d been through here in the fog before, so I thought it’d be okay. I hit my brakes as the car in front of me slowed to @ 30 MPH as we left the “thick” fog and entered the wall of "no man's land" fog. It was SO thick I can't describe it in a way for anyone not there to understand PLUS the glare of the December sun - the "Perfect Storm."
No sooner had I released my brakes then the car in front of me slammed his back on and seconds later hit the pile up. I locked up my brakes and our bumpers tapped. "Damn! My day's gonna be spent dickering with the insurance companies now." Little did I know it was gonna be worse than that... much worse. I leapt out of the car and when the crashing continued behind me, ran for my life. I helped extract an elderly man out of his smashed Volvo. I tried to help others. The fires start to appear out of the mist. You could feel the heat before you saw the flames. Carnage EVERYWHERE. My angels were watching over me that day. Shoot, they worked overtime!!! My car was barely damaged, so I had to stay and remove it once a path was cleared. I left @ 4 pm. I spent the day helping others, listening to heroic stories and tragic stories, and wandering around. I want to share one in hopes it prevents a future traffic tragedy. A converted bus caught fire; the driver conscious inside. His feet were pinned. He was screaming as he burned alive; screaming for someone to cut his feet off; screaming for a gun so he could kill himself; screaming for his life. Others had to restrain his screaming wife in the median as she witnessed his death. I was lucky enough to miss this scene, but others will take the moment to their graves. There were numerous victims that day. Those that lost their lives, friends and family of those that lost their lives, and anyone touched by the incident such as myself and the emergency responders that came to help. My heart goes out to all of them with hopes that they are doing well and have found peace regarding this incident. I relive this wreck every time it's foggy outside. Thank you to the Red Cross for the Krystal hamburgers, fries and drink you gave me as I wandered the scene. Thank you to the fellow smokers that gave me cigarettes (I've since quit). Thank you God for sparing me and my family from additional tragedy. Peace.

January 16, 2012 at 1:19 p.m.
DjDonnyD said...

Dear Bandit, Thanks sooo much for your post! The man that you speak of in your post, The man driving the bus... That was my Father. Donald Raymond Albrecht Sr.(That is a picture of him next to my post.) He was a great man and I miss him very much! I can hardly believe it has been 22 years since we lost him. This week, I will be the same age as him, when he died(47 years old). I was never ready to hear what really happened that day, I guess until now. And I know, what you have discribed... is never easy to hear! But, Thanks for being so candid about it! I really needed to hear the honest truth about my Dad! My Father has 5 kids, 3 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren now. He would have really loved that! I want to Thank you, the Red Cross, All the First responders and the residents of Murfreesboro for all your help on that terrible Day. After 22 years... Everything you did on that terrible day in not forgotten! THANK YOU ALL, FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART! Donald R. Albrecht Jr.

December 6, 2012 at 2:44 p.m.
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