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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 64 · No. 6 > Handling the Worst Crash Ever in Virginia

May/June 2001
Vol. 64 · No. 6

Handling the Worst Crash Ever in Virginia

by Melissa A. Winn

Drawing of cars piled upOn Feb. 20, 2001, it reached 65 degrees (19 degrees Celsius) in Stafford, Va.; 53 degrees (12 C) on Feb. 21. However, on Feb. 22, the highest temperature was only 27 degrees (-3 C), and a sudden snowstorm dropped more than an inch (3 centimeters) of snow in a matter of minutes, creating whiteout conditions that took everyone by surprise. The scene was set for what would become Virginia's worst crash ever - a 117-vehicle pileup that left one person dead and 31 others injured.

The 10:50 a.m. pileup occurred on the busy north-south Interstate 95, halting traffic in the southbound lanes for hours and jamming traffic throughout Northern Virginia. What happened next was a massive, cooperative effort by fire and rescue units, the state police, and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). The impressive response of public safety and transportation personnel facilitated clearing the crash scene and reopening the highway in only 12 hours.

Fire and Rescue

The call was dispatched at 10:51 a.m., and Stafford's Volunteer Fire and Rescue squads arrived on the scene of the I-95 crash at 10:55 a.m."Our first order of business," said Lt. Charlie Robertson of Stafford's Volunteer Fire Squad, "was a report that a woman was trapped in a burning car."

Robertson reported that the squad was able to put the fire out and was relieved to find that the woman was not in the car. She had escaped. After the fire was out, the magnitude of the scene began to unfold.

"We were not initially aware of the extent of the scene," Robertson said, "After we got the fire out, we had to set up a triage for all vehicles. We suddenly found ourselves in the extrication of about 20 vehicles."

Shortly after putting out the fire, a second call reported that another woman was trapped in her vehicle. Fire and rescue squads freed her from the car, but the woman died of a heart attack on the way to the hospital.She was the one fatality in the 117-vehicle pileup. She was on her way to pick up her teen-age son from an area high school where classes had been canceled due to inclement weather.

Fire and rescue personnel continued to interview the people in each vehicle to determine the status of all persons involved in the crash. In all, they determined that 14 people with injuries were in need of transport to area hospitals. Only three injuries were determined to be of a serious nature, one of which was the woman who eventually died. The three patients in critical condition were transported in a short time on the first ambulance to the hospital.

In all, six fire trucks with water hoses, eight to 10 ambulances, a couple of heavy squads (fire trucks equipped with rescue equipment and first-aid equipment, but without a water hose), and four or five utility vehicles were dispatched to the scene. The number of vehicles involved in the crash and the location of those vehicles made it nearly impossible for most rescue vehicles to get to the head of the crash scene where a fire and rescue command post had been established. The scene was so hard to maneuver around that in order to get a hoseclose enough to put out the fire at the scene, the firemen had to take the charged line through the windows of one car, around another car, and underneath several tractor trailers.

Vehicles in snow
A record number of vehicles were involved in the Feb 22 crash on I-95 in Stafford County, VA. The 117-vehicle pileup resulted in one fatality and 31 injuries.

"We had to use 500 feet (150 meters) of hose to get to the fire to get it out," Robertson said. "We had to weave it through and around the vehicles. The working room was limited."

Burned vehicles
Some of the vehicles burned

Fire and rescue personnel also initiated the setup of a shelter for people involved in the crash who were not injured but were not able to leave the scene because police had yet to get their statements. The shelter was set up at a nearby elementary school, which was available because classes had been canceled due to weather. Buses were recruited to take people to the shelter, and the Red Cross was contacted to assist people at the shelter. The auxiliary fire department also provided food and refreshments.

State Police

In any traffic incident, state police are typically called on to investigate why and how the crash occurred and to directtraffic at the scene. On Feb. 22, they faced the arduous task of trying to determine who, if anybody, was at fault for the 117-vehicle pileup. At 1:10 p.m., a team of 20 troopers, including special agents from the Bureau of Criminal Investigations, arrived on the scene, supervised by 1st Sgt. Jeff Fox.

Firemen cutting roof of car
It was necessary for rescue personnel to cut the roof off some vehicles to remove the occupants.

Trooper Dan Redifer of the state police was in charge of reconstructing the accident scene. He broke the scene down into quadrants. He then assigned troopers to each quadrant to get witness statements, trace the scene, and develop a diagram that would illustrate the location of every vehicle in the crash.The on-scene investigation took hours, and state police worked on it throughout the night until 6 a.m. the next morning. For weeks following the crash, state police continued the investigation.

"It was an extremely cumbersome task to try to determine who was at fault," said Lucy Caldwell of the Public Affairs Office for the state police. "Numerous motorists lost control. We won't probably ever be able to say."

"It was a complex process to track all of the people down," said Caldwell, explaining the long investigation. "Many people had abandoned their cars. Some people were going on vacation or were from out of town. Some had rental cars, and for some, language was a barrier. These may not be that big of a problem for a small two-car crash, but in this case, it was extremely time-consuming."

Besides the number of people and vehicles involved in the crash, a number of other factors further complicated the situation. The continuing snow and the overall weather conditions created a constant burden for everyone at the scene. Also, there were numerous crashes in the area that day, and information was coming from all over. The number of vehicles involved in the crash was in constant question for some time. For a while, the 117-vehicle crash was reported as five or six separate crashes, and it took some time to decipher that those five or six crashes were, in fact, one large crash. To add to the confusion, communications were strained for the state police because troopers do not have cell phones.

"That day was a crisis situation," Caldwell said. "And with any crisis situation, it's difficult to get information out quickly. Everyday isn't a crisis, so cost and resources are allocated to other issues besides cell phones.

"I don't think our troopers could've improved upon it," Caldwell said of the communications effort of the state police that day. "As soon as we got word about the crash, we put it out to the public."

Caldwell explained that despite the misinformation about how many vehicles were involved in the pileup and how many crashes occurred, "It wouldn't have changed the message to the public that day: 'I-95 lanes are closed; please avoid I-95, if possible.'"

Virginia Department of Transportation

Virginia has the third largest state-maintained highway system in the country - just behind North Carolina and Texas. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is responsible for building, maintaining, and operating the state's roads,

bridges, and tunnels. And, through the Commonwealth Transportation Board, it also provides funding for airports,seaports, rail, and public transportation.

When an incident occurs, VDOT is responsible for traffic control, including setting up detours and moving traffic with message boards and signs. VDOT is also responsible for cleaning debris or spills at crash scenes and for removing snow from the roadway using chemicals and/or plows. On Feb. 22, VDOT arrived on the scene at approximately 1:15 p.m. and immediately had to play a dual role in the 117-vehicle pileup.

Twisted vehicles facing different directions.
As a result of impacts and spinning on the slick highway, vehicles were turned in all directions.

"In this accident, we had to continue to fight the snow and ice, manage the detour, and work with fire and rescue and state police to direct traffic," said Charlie Kilpatrick, VDOT resident engineer of the Fredericksburg residency.

Earlier in the day, VDOT had also begun to lay chemicals normally applied to roads when winter weather conditions occur or are expected. Standard practice for VDOT is to apply sodium chloride (rock salt) or calcium chloride, which is a liquid.

"The challenge with this storm is that the storm came so quickly, and at the same time, accidents were occurring, and traffic was not moving," Kilpatrick said. The lack of traffic moving at regular speeds keeps the chemicals from being spread effectively along the road.

"My primary concern when I arrived on the scene was the size of the accident - the number of vehicles and trucks in such a small area. Most of the accident was less than the length of two football fields. All the vehicles were piled up, packed. It looked like a tremendous undertaking," said Kilpatrick.

VDOT does not typically play a role in the investigative efforts of the state police unless state police require copies of road plans or other such documents that VDOT can provide.

Working Together

Because fire and rescue squads appeared on the scene first and were the only responding agencies on the scene for the first couple of hours, their command post at the head of the scene served as a sort of unified command post for several hours after all agencies began working together to clear the scene. Typically, fire and rescue officials turn over the command of the crash scene to state police when the police arrive.

"We tried to use our command post as a unified command post, but it was not particularly unified," Robertson reported. "It was a long event in duration, so our command was not terminated until about 4 p.m."

Although there was a lack of a real unified command and some confusion because of that, the responding agencies worked diligently together to reroute traffic and to clear the damaged and abandoned vehicles off the road.

At the scenes of some crashes of less magnitude in surrounding areas, the roads were not completely cleared for a day and a half. For example, as the result of a fire, a nearby interstate was not opened to traffic until the next afternoon.

But the recovery efforts on I-95 were an impressive success. One lane was opened to southbound traffic at 8:00 p.m. that evening. All lanes of I-95 were open by 10 p.m.

"What made the recovery successful," said Kilpatrick, "was that fire and rescue, the state police, the towing people, and VDOT have all been together before on a scene like this, although not to this magnitude. What really impressed me was that everyone was comfortable with each other, and that goes a long way to getting the scene cleared and the roads opened."

Evaluation and Improvement

On March 20, state and local officials met in Fredericksburg, Va., to assess the performance and response to the I-95 crash, to evaluate the investigation of the crash, and to identify any areas for improvement.

"We've made a standard procedure for these incidents," Kilpatrick said. "VDOT sponsors or tries to gather together the responding agencies to see what went right, what went wrong. This also builds teamwork among all responding agencies. We've been doing this for a number of years to improve our response to incidents."

One of the overriding concerns addressed at the meeting was communication. Local and state agencies do not have a common communications system, which caused a number of complications at the scene of this incident. The complications included the inaccurate reporting to all agencies of the number of vehicles involved and the delay of VDOT and state police reporting to the scene.

Another concern was the lack of a truly unified command post. With a unified command post, the responding agencies could better understand what role each agency needed to play, and information could be disseminated from a central location.

"That wasn't really used in this incident," said Tom Jennings of the Federal Highway Administration's Virginia Division. "Having one command center to issue orders would help with calling tow trucks, getting VDOT on the scene, even letting agencies know: 'Can we come up the other side of the freeway? Is that side of the freeway open?'"

Kirkpatrick explained that a working group has now been established to address some of these issues, including communications and technology, and to create some more formalized agreements and procedures among responding agencies.

"It's not always the fire sergeant or the lieutenant that shows up on a scene," Kirkpatrick said. "The working group will make sure we all understand each other's role so that no matter who the players are, we still have the same game plan."

Nevertheless, the agencies agreed that it was an extraordinary effort by all agencies, state police, fire and rescue, the towing companies, and VDOT, working together to clear the scene of what is now known as Virginia's worst highway crash in history.

"Were there things that we could've done to open the roads faster?" Kirkpatrick asked. "With weather conditions and a crash of this scale, no dramatic improvements would've been seen."

Robertson agrees, "Initially some people were defensive, and there was some recognition about what things had been dropped, what could've been done differently. But after some explanation and understanding, we all agreed that the most amazing thing about this incident was that the interstate was open at 10 p.m. that same day. It was absolutely amazing."


Melissa A. Winn is the assistant editor of Public Roads. She is employed by Avalon Integrated Services Corp. of Arlington, Va.

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