By Jeff Lehr
A sudden patch of dense fog may have contributed to a deadly series of collisions early Wednesday on Interstate 44 southeast of Joplin, taking the lives of two drivers and injuring several other travelers.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol said the series of collisions shortly before 7 a.m. in the eastbound lanes of I-44 between the 13.4- and 13.6-mile markers culminated in a fiery and fatal pileup of about seven vehicles.
State troopers said the series of accidents involved a total of 16 vehicles: nine tractor-trailers, a large construction crane truck, four passenger cars and two pickup trucks. Five area fire departments and several emergency medical crews responded to the scene about a mile east of the exits for Missouri Highway 249 and U.S. Highway 71 South.
The driver of a car that ran up under one semitrailer and the driver of a second truck rig that ran into the rear of the same trailer from behind were pronounced dead at the scene. Emergency medical personnel took seven people to area hospitals, state troopers said.
The accidents shut down the eastbound and westbound lanes of the interstate for about two hours. The eastbound lanes remained closed for most of the day. A single eastbound lane was reopened about 6:30 p.m.
The identities of those killed were being withheld Wednesday night pending notification of their families. Information on the identities and conditions of those injured also had yet to be released.
“Were looking at at least three separate accidents,” Sgt. Mike Watson of the state patrol told the Globe in midafternoon.
Watson said at that time that it might take another day before crash-scene investigators could reconstruct the accidents well enough to release a report detailing exactly what happened. But he told the Globe earlier in the day that heavy fog may have contributed to an initial wreck involving two tractor-trailers. Moments later, a large crane truck apparently swerved onto the left shoulder of the eastbound lanes and struck a guardrail, he said.
A pileup of three other tractor-trailers and about four passenger vehicles apparently ensued. At least two of the semis and two of the cars burst into flames.
“The reports we had were that after the initial accident or two, vehicles were slowing down, and that’s when the accident with the seven vehicles and the fire occurred,” Watson said.
He said the car that was trapped under the semitrailer was so badly mashed and burned that investigators could not determine its make or model. Jasper County Coroner Jerry Neil later confirmed that two male drivers who were pronounced dead at the scene burned in the crash.
There was some initial concern among rescue workers about the possibility of hazardous-material spills from the trucks involved. But firefighters determined that there had been no such spills, Watson said.
Witnesses to the accident described coming upon a sudden patch of heavy fog followed by a horrific scene that unfolded before their eyes.
Truck driver Shane Hamilton said he was on his way to Springfield to pick up some freight when heavy fog forced him to slow his rig down.
“It was kind of foggy at first,” Hamilton said. “But when we got down here, the visibility just dropped. You had maybe five yards of visibility.”
He said he had just enough time to pull off the highway before he saw flames shooting out from a collision of truck rigs in front of him.
“I didn’t see the fire until I was right there,” Hamilton said.
Lawrence Schultz, who was on his way to work in Carthage from his home in Baxter Springs, Kan., said he also came close to being involved.
“It was just really foggy,” Schultz said. “It was really bad.”
He said he could smell burning rubber from the tires of vehicles ahead of him as their drivers braked in attempts to avoid the first of the collisions between two tractor-trailers. He said the driver of a third truck rig lost control as it came upon the collision, and several trucks and cars were drawn into other collisions that followed.
Schultz said he heard several explosions after stopping, and saw a man and woman, both injured, stumbling dazed through the wreckage.
“His shirt was burned up. His hand was bleeding real bad,” he said. “I just happened to be running late, and I am feeling lucky.”
Metro Editor Andy Ostmeyer and staff writer Greg Grisolano contributed to this report.
Wednesday’s chain-reaction collisions on Interstate 44 involved more vehicles than a pileup May 18, 2002, on the interstate east of Joplin, but they were less deadly. Four people died and eight were injured in the accident six years ago involving eight truck rigs and six passenger vehicles.
By Jeff Lehr
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