The mid-morning fiery crash on I-94 in Racine County yesterday is “the worst” Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling has seen.
The “horrific scene” involved two semitrailer trucks and three other vehicles, resulting in at least two fatalities, and sent three to area hospitals with serious injuries.
“In my 24 years on this job, this is the worst accident I have ever been part of,” Schmaling said. “Both the semi-tractor trailer drivers are deceased if they are the sole occupants of those trucks.”
Schmaling said multiple 911 calls starting coming in at 11 a.m.
“There were reports of fire. There were reports of explosions ...” he said at a news conference late Wednesday afternoon. “It was sort of a chain of events that resulted in the unfortunate loss of life.”
The crash closed the interstate for more than seven hours, leaving some stuck in a traffic jam and snarling traffic on arterial highways. Commuters traveling southbound were detoured at Highway 20 to Highway 31. Motorists traveling northbound were detoured at Highway G to Highway 45.
Started at construction
According to Schmaling, initial investigation indicates a semitractor-trailer traveling southbound on I-94 near 50th Road hit a construction barrier while making a lane change. The driver of that truck reportedly over-corrected and then hit the concrete median wall that separates the northbound and southbound lanes.
Schmaling said the force of the impact shoved that median wall into the northbound lanes.
“As a result, three (northbound) passenger vehicles also collided with one another, with the barriers and with the wall itself,” Schmaling said.
The driver of a northbound semitrailer then took evasive action swerving to the east and careened off the highway, crashing to the area of the frontage road below.
“That semitrailer went off the road and burst into flames as well,” Schmaling said.
Both trucks were fully engulfed in flames when deputies arrived on scene, he said.
“This could have been just a simple mistake on this person’s part that led to a chain of events,” he said. “It only takes one person to make one small error and it has devastating effects, as we’ve seen today.”
Deceased driver a ‘hero’
Schmaling called the driver of the second semitrailer a “hero” for avoiding a crash with the passenger vehicles ahead.
“One occupant (of the passenger vehicles) walked away without any injury,” Schmaling said. “I think this unfortunately deceased individual is a hero by turning and risking his, or her, own life to avoid the crash.”
First responders used ditch lines and road shoulder “desperately” trying to reach the scene.
“I didn’t hear of any significant delays,” Schmaling said.
The names of the deceased and injured were not released Wednesday.
Lt. Anne Maxson of the Wisconsin State Patrol is heading up the investigation, which will include an examination of the highway infrastructure, toxicology and inquiries into what the trucks were carrying and if their cargo was what it was suppose to be.
The thick black smoke that could be seen for miles is initially attributed to the heat of the flames causing tires to explode.
Schmaling is asking motorists on I-94 to slow down, be aware of their surroundings, leave space between vehicles and remove distractions.
“There is no secret, I-94 is under extreme construction,” Schmaling said. “We have been experiencing a lot of crashes.”
The speed limit in the area of the crash is 60 mph. Schmaling said the department has “extra patrol out there already.”
“I don’t know if lowering the speed limit is going to change the outcome of today’s situation,” Schmaling said. “I don’t know the answer to that. I wish I did.”
He said road traffic patterns and barrier placement is ever changing.
“We can make this a very safe situation if we all really work collectively together,” he said.”