December 23, 2022 about 12:30 p.m. eastbound lanes of the Ohio Turnpike at mile marker 106.2. The air temperature was about 4 degrees above zero, but strong winds with snow made it feel like minus 50 degrees at times.
Most of the counties in northern Ohio along the turnpike had declared Level 3 emergency (non-emergency traffic not allowed). However, the Ohio Turnpike as a restricted access interstate transportation route is exempt from county declared weather warnings.
Two of the three lanes of the turnpike through Erie and Sandusky counties were relatively snow-free with good visibility. Traffic was generally travelling around 40 to 55 miles an hour – well under the posted speed limit.
However, the area near the Erie-Sandusky County line has a history of white-out conditions that occur with no warning. In fact, in 2014 that area was where a huge multi-vehicle accident had occurred that claimed three lives.
Eight years later, it happened again. This one claimed five lives, including an unborn child. Ohio State Highway Patrol Lts. Brett Gockstetter and Richard Reeder gave a spell-binding presentation to Archbold Rotarians about how 51 vehicles, including 14 commercial trucks, became involved in a pile-up that was so tangled that it took six hours to find and free the last victim, a truck driver who died enroute to the hospital.
Lt. Gockstetter, the Milan post commander, directed the response that was severely complicated by the weather conditions. Also, some vehicles were very difficult to reach because of the compaction caused when commercial trucks pushed passenger vehicles into and under other vehicles.
He explained the accident started with two commercial trucks colliding and continued for nearly five minutes as other vehicles kept running into disabled vehicles blocking the highway ahead of them.
Most of the 51 vehicles involved in the pile-up were located within the space of 100 yards from the first vehicles to the last.
Afterward trucking companies voluntarily turned over video from their trucks’ cab cameras. Using that video, which showed how portions of the accident occurred and confirmed the speed that some of the trucks were traveling, along with troopers’ body cameras of still photos of the vehicles, it was possible to later re-create the accident.
However, the immediate challenge was getting to persons in vehicles wedged under or against others. Fortunately, this time many of the vehicles were under both sides of an overpass. Once it was determined that the overpass could accommodate the weight of several wreckers, it was used to hoist and move vehicles so first responders could reach persons in vehicles that they otherwise had no way of reaching.
Lt. Gockstetter said that in his 25 years with the OSHP, he’s seen many terrible accidents; however, none that affected him like this one.
With families traveling to visit relatives for the Christmas holiday, many of the vehicles were loaded with wrapped presents and family members sleeping in the back seat.
Most of the persons in the vehicles weren’t wearing winter clothing and many weren’t wearing shoes, Lt. Gockstetter said.
Consequently, many of the persons involved in the accident suffered severe frostbite simply because they had no way to reach heavier clothing that was somewhere else in the vehicle.
He explained, seeing families that could have been his own with presents like ones that he had purchased for his family simply touched him in a way that other accidents never had.
Both officers said that what was learned from the 2014 pile-up on the turnpike proved invaluable to their response in 2022.
Even in the chaos and terrible weather that made communication and visibility difficult, Lt. Gockstetter said he knew what needed to be done.
The Erie and Sandusky County EMA and Red Cross immediately provided help for persons who were involved in the accident. Firefighters took charge of getting persons trapped in vehicles out.
EMS took care of getting the injured to a nearby turnpike maintenance office for assessment and treatment before taking them on to hospitals.
And, none of the first responders took a break from the brutal weather conditions until everyone was taken care of.
Ultimately, no citations were issued. It was determined that the accident was caused by an act of nature.
So, what would Lts. Gockstetter and Reeder urge people to take away from the accident? If you can, know what kind of weather, particularly in the winter, you may encounter and prepare for it before leaving home.
If conditions may be treacherous, stay off the road if you can. If you are driving on an interstate highway, slow down and anticipate what might be ahead. And try to keep winter coats and blankets where you can reach them in case you need them.
They said that as a result of the two accidents, the turnpike commission is considering several things in that area and others that prone to white-out or low visibility conditions.
For example, planting wind breaks and installing snow fences along stretches of the turnpike. Also, installing some type of flashing signage that can be activated as needed to warn of possible hazards ahead that encourage motorists to slow down.
Asked whether they would advise leaving your vehicle in such an accident. Neither gave a hard and fast suggestion. Lt. Gockstetter noted that all the deaths in last year’s pile-up were a result of collision impact from a commercial vehicle.
No one died from a passenger vehicle hitting another passenger vehicle, he said. Given the weather conditions, all vehicles were going slower than regular highway speed.
Today’s vehicles are designed to provide greater safety in lower speed collisions if both vehicles are similar in size and weight.