A symptom of a balmy January thaw that's rapidly melting away much of the snow cover, the fog that smothered the region over the weekend was responsible for a major series of car crashes on I-90 just south of Madison on Sunday afternoon.
"The multi-car accident that included approximately 35 vehicles has resulted in a reported 50 persons being transported to local hospitals," reported the Dane County Department of Emergency Management after the incident. These numbers were later increased, with the crashes ultimately involving about 100 vehicles on both directions and along some five miles of the interstate.
A large section of the freeway from the eastern terminus of the Beltline (U.S. 12/18) south to the intersection with Highway N was closed well into the night as accident victims were rescued and destroyed autos and debris were cleared from the scene.
Witnesses happening upon the crashes had plenty to say.
"We had just crossed over into Wisconsin when the fog set in," explains Madison-based writer (and The Daily Page contributor) Emily Mills, who was driving into town along I-90 from Chicago on Sunday. She continues:
At first it wasn't very bad, but then, rather suddenly, it thickened into a white soup that reduced visibility down to about three car-lengths. I slowed down to 35 mph and left several car-lengths between me and the vehicle in front of me. And thank God for that, because a few moments later, a wall of stopped vehicles loomed up immediately in front of us. I hit the brakes and veered off onto the left-hand shoulder to make sure no one hit me and that I didn't hit anyone. Thankfully, the cars immediately in front of and behind me were all able to stop without incident, but just a few seconds passed after we stopped before we started to hear loud screeches and bangs just behind us.She goes on to describe the following several hours of waiting amidst the massive traffic jam caused by the original series of accidents earlier in the day and the eventual drive home by alternate paths.
One after another, probably four all-told in our immediate vicinity, vehicles were colliding. It's one of my least favorite sounds--that brief squeal of tires followed immediately by metal and plastic slamming into each other.
One driver heading east from Brainerd, Minnesota to Chicago describes the traffic jam he found while passing through Madison. "For just about the entire trip I was driving through very dense fog, and right around Madison, all traffic came to a complete standstill," he explains. "I thought to myself, 'I'll bet there was a bad wreck.' Well as I sat in the car, in the span of ten minutes, about nine fire trucks, seven ambulances, and seven police cars zipped by on the shoulder. I knew that this traffic jam was going to be a long one, but fortunately I was right by an exit ramp, so I got off the interstate and was back at my trek in no time."
Meanwhile, Tom Scharbach of Delton shares experiences returning to the Wisconsin Dells area from Osseo, as the fog was also thick northwest of the Madison area. "Headed back, things got bad enough that I pulled off the Interstate at Tomah, and we came back Highway 12, which runs parallel to I-90/94," he explains. "I figured that I could drive on Highway 12 at a reasonable speed without having some idiot rear end me, and that while it would take a few seconds for a multi-car pileup to happen on the Interstate, and a lot, lot longer on Highway 12, since we saw a car every ten minutes or so." Another driver also describes the roads west of Madison, primarily upon two-lane highways as fog-bound as the interstates.
Emergency response officials responded to the crashes throughout the afternoon and night, with assistance coming from nearly a dozen agencies. One local reporter published a trio of photos (here, here, and here) of a press conference held by the Wisconsin State Patrol and other agencies at a Wingate Inn motel near the location of the interstate crashes. More photos from the scene are available from the State Journal and WISC-TV. Live online footage of Madison roadways is provided here by the Wisconsin DOT.
One recent traveler suggests a number of "troubling factors" that may have contributed to the accidents, including slow communications about the accidents once the first reports were made, poor signage, and of course, bad drivers. "I drove from Madison to Milwaukee at noon, and I cannot believe how many people either didn't have their lights on or used just their parking lights in the fog," they comment. "Also, too many people were tailgating, and the over-cautious drivers were also screwing things up by breaking too often and fluctuating speeds too much."
A second observer notes the rescue and recovery following the accidents, which included transportation by Madison Metro and emergency relief from the Red Cross and Salvation Army, and urges drivers to slow down. "Please, please people: slow down, turn your lights on, and stay alert (and off your damn cell phone!) if you have to be on the roads in these conditions," she urges. "With the warmer temperatures, melting snow, and rain moving in, dense fog is likely to be with us throughout the week."
In fact, all comment on the need for slower driving in poor conditions. "I'm incredibly thankful to be home at all, while many of my fellow motorists are stuck in motels and such tonight," concludes Mills. "My thoughts go out to the families and friends of people who were injured, and especially of those who were killed. What a shitty night."