Responders remember fatal fog disaster
by By GREG KAYLOR Banner Staff Writer
Dec 12, 2010 | 5926 views | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
FOG-INDUCED TRAGEDY — This photo from the files of Benji Riggs shows a rescuer working at the Interstate 75 site of a 99-vehicle accident on Dec. 11, 1990.
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Dec. 11, 1990, marked a dark day in Bradley and McMinn counties. Saturday was the 20th anniversary of the most deadly car-crash event ever recorded in Tennessee.

Just after 9:17 a.m. on that day, Philip Shelton of Bradley County Fire Department, received a call for help. A dense fog had literally covered Interstate 75 near the Hiwassee River.

Since then, millions of dollars have been spent in to prevent a similar event from happening.

A deadly chain of events began to unfold as car after car, transport truck after transport truck, began to stack up. Explosive impacts, then crushing from larger vehicles meant a certain death.

Fires fed by gasoline and other combustibles reduced some vehicles to their skeletal remains.

When it was over, 99 cars and trucks had piled up, killing a dozen travelers and injuring at least 42.

Bill Dyer, former chief deputy for the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office, was first on the scene. He said he attempted to relay a message to his dispatchers to send help near Charleston, but be careful. Cars and trucks continued to explode as they burned. Tires, fuel and hazardous materials carried by tanker trucks posed other threats as well.

Dyer recalled recently the radio transmission and reported to the dispatcher who began sending emergency responders to the scene near Exit 36 in Calhoun.

Cars and big trucks piled up and fires fueled by chemicals, diesel and gas began trapping the vehicles in a twisted mess.

“It was a moment which changed my life,” said Dyer.

According to a New York Times article published the day after, “People involved in the accident, which extended over more than a mile of the highway, told of hearing the crashing of metal and shattering of glass in the fog as dozens of tractor-trailers collided with each other and with cars. There were several explosions and fires, but there was no lasting threat from leaks of materials carried by some of the trucks, the authorities said. Investigators said they still were unable to determine what had set off the chain reaction, but they said they believed it began when a vehicle in the southbound lane crashed in the heavy fog. They said vehicles jumping the median or drivers slowing down to see the crash might have caused the second pileup in the northbound lane. From there, the authorities went on, it was a chain reaction.”

Mike Boggess was chief of Bradley County Rescue at the time. Doug Albritton worked Rescue and with the Charleston Fire Department. Both were on the scene that morning and recalled one of the most notable crashes within the crash of 99 vehicles.

“One of the first vehicles we saw was a Mercury Capri which was crushed between two big trucks,” said Boggess, who arrived while the scene was still foggy. He said the fog was beginning to mix with and be replaced by smoke from the many fires which had erupted.

“The car was about the size of a laptop computer,” said Boggess, relating to the force of impact and the car being trapped between the trucks.

Richard Taylor was the state HazMat chief, a deputy with the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office and a member of Rescue as well.

He was responsible for making sure hazardous materials were dealt with properly.

According to Boggess, one of the most prominent and damaging fires was located directly under the I-75 bridge at Exit 36. A tractor rig containing canisters of a chemical were allowed to “burn” themselves out, because if doused with foam or water, the risks would have been greater, according to Boggess.

“There was no ‘Incident Command’ system like we have in today’s world and especially after 9/11,” said Boggess. “But we all went straight to work just minutes after the call for help. It wasn’t the first time we had been there, either. In 1976 or ’77, we had a pile-up of about 60 cars directly on top of the bridge which crosses the Hiwassee River,” reflected Boggess. “It doesn’t matter, when crashes occur in either (set of) lanes, the other lanes headed in the opposite direction also experience pile-ups.”

Motorists were also killed in that pileup as well, recalled Boggess.

Neither Boggess nor Albritton could remember whether the driver/passengers of the Mercury had made it out safely during the 1990 crash.

“A number of people exited their cars and ran to the sides of the interstate to escape. They could hear the cars and trucks colliding and the explosions of tires and fuel tanks,” said Boggess, who explained the density of the fog was so great the victims were blindly running for what they thought would be safer.

The fog was believed to have been caused by cooling ponds and steam vapors near what was then Bowater Southern, and called “a naturally-occurring fog,” according to reports.

Those ponds are not in use now, according to Boggess.

“This was a multiagency response and Bradley County Emergency Medical Service and Dr. Jerry DeVane set up a triage and began assessing patient injuries,” said Boggess. “After the patients were taken for treatment, we were still there for the next 15 to 20 hours aiding in recovery of victims and helping coordinate cleanup.”

Incident Command establishes a central staff to oversee operations of such magnitude. All emergency first responders are now under the Incident Command structure, especially local fire departments such as Cleveland Fire Department and Bradley County Fire Rescue.

They use the structure daily to coordinate their efforts.

Even though the structure was not in use that day in 1990, Boggess and Albritton said that “pockets, or groups of rescuers worked together in unison to save those injured.”

“We all stepped up and did what was needed,” said Boggess.

The National Transportation Safety Board performed an extensive investigation into the crash and made suggestions how to avoid such a tragedy again.

Today, an elaborate “Warning” system is in place. The government spent $6.79 million to upgrade the system a few years ago and Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers continue their daily placement in the “fog-zone.” Reflective markers also keep drivers alert to the shoulder and median.

Troopers stay in the “zone” until 10 a.m. each day.

The sophisticated system incorporates remote-controlled message signs, fog detectors, and video cameras, according to Tennessee Department of Transportation.

The tragedy made national news quickly and has been profiled since on cable TV channels such as the Weather Channel and TLC, and shows such as “Extreme Forensics.”

Boggess said no memorials have ever been established at the site of one of Tennessee’s greatest tragedies.

“I would like to see a group or civic organization set up a marker or other monument to honor those who died there that day and recognize all who worked feverishly to rescue them,” said Boggess.

“Millions of dollars have been spent to keep the area safer, but nothing has been done for them during this past 20 years.”

Report outlined steps to avert future fog events

The following is the text of the National Transportation Safety Board’s official report on the Dec. 11, 1990, tragedy. The report was released Sept. 28, 1992.

NTSB Number: HAR-92/02

NTIS Number: PB92-916202

SYNOPSIS

About 9: 10 a.m. on Dec. 11, 1990, a tractor-semitrailer in the southbound lanes of Interstate 75 near Calhoun, Tennessee, struck the rear of another tractor-semitrailer that had slowed because of fog. The uninjured truckdrivers exited their vehicles and attempted to check for damage. After the initial collision, an automobile struck the rear of the second truck and was in turn struck in the rear by another tractor-semitrailer. Fire ensued and consumed two trucks and the automobile. Meanwhile, in the northbound lanes of I-75, an automobile struck the rear of another automobile that had slowed because of fog. Then, a pickup truck and two other automobiles became involved in the chain-reaction rear end collision. No fatalities, injuries, or fires occurred. Subsequently, 99 vehicles in the northbound and southbound lanes were in multiple-vehicle chain-reaction collisions that killed 12 people and injured 42 others.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the multiple-vehicle collisions on I-75 near Calhoun, Tennessee, was drivers responding to the sudden loss of visibility by operating their vehicles at significantly varying speeds.

n The safety issues discussed in this report include:

n Nonuniform driver behavior during limited-visibility conditions.

n Detection of limited-visibility conditions.

n Limited-visibility countermeasures.

n Hazardous materials container performance.

As a result of its investigation, the Safety Board made recommendations addressing these issues to the United States Department of Transportation; the Federal Highway Administration; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; the Tennessee Department of Transportation; the Tennessee Highway Patrol; the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators; the Research and Special Programs Administration; Hercules, Inc.; the Charleston Volunteer Fire Department; the American Automobile Association; and the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association.

RECOMMENDATIONS

As a result of its investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board made the following recommendations:

To the U. S. Department of Transportation:

n Incorporate fog and other limited-visibility condition countermeasures in demonstration projects of the Intelligent Vehicle Highway System program. (Class II, Priority Action) (H-92-86).

To the Federal Highway Administration:

n Following completion of the National Cooperative Highway Research Program Project 20-5, Topic 23-12, “Reduced Visibility on the Highway,” ensure the continued development of effective fog and other limited-visibility countermeasures and make information about these countermeasures available to States on a timely basis. (Class II, Priority Action)(H-92-87).

In cooperation with the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin-istration, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, the American Automobile Association, and the American Driver and Traffic Safe Education Association, review and update driver license, educational, and remedial training materials to ensure that guidance for driving during limited-visibility conditions is uniform and complete and is included in commercial driver license materials. (Class II, Priority Action) (H-92-88).

To the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

n In cooperation with the Federal Highway Administration, the American Automobile Association, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, and the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association, review and update driver license, educational, and remedial training materials to ensure that guidance for driving during limited-visibility conditions is uniform and complete. (Class II, Priority Action) (H-92-89).

In cooperation with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, develop model test questions for licensing examinations on driving during limited-visibility conditions. (Class II, Priority Action) (H-92-90)

To the Research and Special Programs Administration:

n Require that attachments to all U.S. Department of Transportation-authorized hazardous materials packagings be designed to minimize the risk of puncturing other hazardous materials packagings during an accident situation. (Class II, Priority Action) (1-92-1)

n Revise requirements for pressure-relief venting on U.S. Department of Transportation specification 57 portable tanks used to transport dicumyl peroxide and other products with similar rapid decomposition characteristics to insure that the pressure-relief systems prevent overpressure rupture of tanks from a rapid product decomposition reaction. (Class II, Priority Action) (1-92-2)

To the Tennessee Department of Transportation:

n In cooperation with the Tennessee Highway Patrol, revise the 1992 Tennessee Department of Transportation and Tennessee Highway Patrol Plan of Action and the Surveillance and Response Plan. The plans should provide for the immediate detection of traffic flow disruption and fog, uniform driver response to reduce and maintain traffic speed in advance of and through the hazardous area, enforcement of countermeasures, and a public information and education program to ensure that motorists receive specific behavioral guidance for the fog-prone area. (Class II, Priority Action)(H-92-91).

To the Tennessee Highway Patrol:

n In cooperation with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, revise the 1992 Tennessee Department of Transportation and Tennessee Highway Patrol Plan of Action and the Surveillance and Response Plan. The plans should provide for the immediate detection of traffic flow disruption and fog, uniform driver response to reduce and maintain traffic speed in advance of and through the hazardous area, enforcement of countermeasures, and a public education program to ensure that motorists receive specific behavioral guidance for the fog-prone area. (Class II, Priority Action) (H-92-92).

To the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators:

n Notify your members of the circumstances of the accident on Interstate 75 near Calhoun, Tenn., as discussed in this report. Also, develop inserts concerning countermeasures that motorists should consider when driving during fog and other limited-visibility conditions and advise your members to enclose such inserts with driver license renewals, motor vehicle registration renewals, and similar mailings. (Class II, Priority Action) (H-92-93).

n In cooperation with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the American Automobile Association, the Federal Highway Administration, and the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association, review and update driver license, educational, and remedial training materials to ensure that guidance for driving during limited-visibility conditions is uniform and complete. (Class II, Priority Action) (H-92-94).

In cooperation with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, develop model test questions for licensing examinations on driving during limited-visibility conditions. Provide this information to your members for inclusion in driver manuals. (Class II, Priority Action) (H-92-95).

To Hercules, Incorporated:

n Modify the design of the fork lift truck channels on U.S. Department of Transportation specification 57 portable tanks to minimize the risk of puncturing other portable tanks during an accident situation. (Class II, Priority Action) (1-92-3).

To the Charleston Volunteer Fire Department:

n Provide all personnel with the training necessary to identify hazardous materials in accidents, to recognize the immediate dangers posed, and to determine appropriate initial emergency response actions. (Class II, Priority Action) (I-92-4) NTSB Number: HAR-92/02

NTIS Number: PB92-916202.

To the American Automobile Association:

n In cooperation with the Federal Highway Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, and the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association, review and update driver license, educational (including Triptik maps), and remedial training materials to ensure that guidance for driving during limited-visibility conditions is uniform and complete. (Class II, Priority Action) (H-92-96).

To the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association:

n In cooperation with the Federal Highway Administration, the National Traffic Safety Administration, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, and the American Automobile Association, review and update driver license, educational, and remedial training materials to ensure that guidance for driving during limited-visibility conditions is uniform and complete. (Class II, Priority Action) (H-92-97). This report dated Sept. 28, 1992.