Video: 5 dead in snowy Pa. pileup involving 40-60 vehicles, multiple fires

Emergency personnel from four counties responded and transported approximately 20 patients to area hospitals


Update at 9:36 a.m. CT on March 29, 2022:

Five dead, several injured in I-81 pileup in Schuylkill County

Frank Andruscavage
The Citizens' Voice, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Interstate 81 North near the Minersville exit, Foster Twp., Pa., was the scene of a multi-vehicle crash on Monday, March 28, 2022.
Interstate 81 North near the Minersville exit, Foster Twp., Pa., was the scene of a multi-vehicle crash on Monday, March 28, 2022. (David McKeown/Republican-Herald via AP)

MOUNT PLEASANT, Pa. — Five people are confirmed dead after a multi-vehicle accident in the northbound lanes of Interstate 81 in Foster Twp., Schuylkill County, during a snow squall Monday morning.

The sudden onset of heavy snow coupled with fog in the area proved a dangerous combination as tractor-trailers, trucks and passenger vehicles slammed into one another. The impact caused at least one tractor-trailer to catch fire; another truck carrying acetylene cylinders was near the blaze.

The fire spread to other trucks and passenger vehicles involved in the initial crash, but it did not reach the truck carrying the acetylene.

Firefighters said all of the fatalities were believed to be people involved in the vehicles that caught fire during the initial crash.

Schuylkill County Deputy Coroner Albert Barnes pronounced the victims dead at the scene.

Around 3 p.m. Monday, Barnes said several other vehicles had to be examined and that the death toll could increase. No information was available on the names or addresses of the victims.

In addition to those killed, several people were flown by helicopter to trauma centers for treatment of serious injuries, while a mass casualty incident triage area was set up on the property of Wegmans Distribution Center in the Highridge Industrial Park, a short distance from the crash site.

A state police trooper was among those injured when his patrol vehicle became part of the chain-reaction crash. He was taken to a local hospital to be checked out and treated for minor injuries.

The crash occurred around 10:30 a.m. in an area just south of the Minersville exit, Exit 116.

Emergency personnel said more than 50 vehicles may have been involved.

Eric Eichenberg, Minersville fire chief, was in command of the incident since it happened in Foster Twp.

He said crews had a difficult time getting to the scene due to slippery road conditions and vehicles that were stuck on Route 901 leading to the interstate.

Firefighters set up portable dams to shuttle water to fight the fire, while rescue crews and firefighters from numerous area companies worked to free people trapped inside their vehicles. An aerial truck was used to spray water from above onto the burning vehicles.

As several firefighters worked to extinguish the fire, others walked from crushed vehicle to crushed vehicle checking on the occupants and treating the injured as needed.

Firefighters spray painted a red "X" on the windshield as a sign that the vehicle had been checked for occupants or injuries.

Early in the incident responding rescue, fire and EMS units were told to get on I-81 at the Highridge interchange and travel south in the northbound lanes of the highway to access the crash.

Fire apparatus and EMS units, as well as state and municipal officers, accessed the crash from the Route 901 overpass.

Cars have been piled up on and off the road following a multi-vehicle crash Monday on Interstate 81 North near the Minersville exit in Foster Township, Pa.
Cars have been piled up on and off the road following a multi-vehicle crash Monday on Interstate 81 North near the Minersville exit in Foster Township, Pa. (Photo/David McKeown/Republican-Herald/Associated Press)

Sam Beagle, owner of Pristine Flooring in Mount Carmel, was traveling north and planned on getting off at the Minersville exit.

"All hell broke loose, it was a pure white out, pure hell," Beagle said.

Beagle said he was traveling about 35 mph when a passing tractor-trailer started to jackknife.

"That was the one (truck) in the first wreck," Beagle said, adding that it appeared he was going under the speed limit but still too fast for conditions.

Beagle said his work van began to slide and went off the road, missing vehicles that either already crashed or were crashing.

"I got super lucky," he said. "I slid into the grass and dodged every rig by about an inch."

Beagle recalled the frightening sounds he heard after his van came to a stop.

"Every five seconds all you heard was bang, bang, bang," he said. "There were people screaming and screaming. It was the worst screaming you ever heard."

As he was near his van with his worker, who was riding with him, Beagle said he could see firefighters cutting people out of vehicles and taking them away.

"It was something you don't want to see," he said.

Schuylkill County Emergency Management Agency Coordinator John Matz said Wegmans opened up its employee lunchroom and provided food and beverages to people who were being evaluated by EMS personnel. Those who were not injured were then taken to the Goodwill Fire Company in Minersville by Schuylkill Transportation System buses.

Matz said members of the American Red Cross opened a reception center to provide a safe, warm central hub for those affected, as well as allowing them to receive and send information to their families.

Matz said about 40 or 50 people were helped at the fire company.

Those who had their vehicles destroyed were helped with lodging at the Inn and Suites hotel at the Highridge Industrial Park. Matz said the cost of the lodging was picked up by the Red Cross with assistance from the Schuylkill County United Way.

Matz said that emergency efforts went well considering the enormous amount of vehicles and victims.

"Everybody involved from EMS, the 911 Center and firefighters worked together. Everybody steps up in a time like this," Matz said.

A driver caught up in the pileup but not injured posted a video that went viral on Facebook and other social media sites.

In the video, the driver exited his vehicle and, recording with his cellphone, captured a tractor-trailer slamming into the back of another tractor-trailer at almost full speed, then a third-tractor trailer slamming into the second truck.

As the driver pans to face south, an SUV can be seen skidding off the road and onto the berm, where it hits a car whose driver had just exited and had to jump out of the way to avoid being struck.

"This is crazy," the man shooting the video could be heard saying.

After commenting on the severity of the vehicles on fire, the man shooting the video can be heard saying he is going to go and see if he can help anyone involved.

State police were beginning their complicated investigation as to what caused the crash, which was said to be weather related. Involved were troopers from the Frackville station, along with accident reconstruction experts, the motor carrier enforcement unit and the forensic services unit, all from Troop L, Reading.

Firefighters originally shut down the northbound lanes at the Hegins exit, mile marker 112, but later moved the closure south, shutting down the highway at the Tremont exit, mile marker 107.

Southbound traffic was brought to a standstill at the Highridge exit, mile marker 119, and later pushed back to shutting down the road at the Frackville exit, mile marker 124.

Also closed was Keystone Boulevard inside the Highridge Industrial Park, and Gordon Mountain Road and Route 901 in both directions, toward Minersville and into Barry Twp.

All roadways were reopened as of 5 p.m., with the exception of the northbound lanes of I-81 and the eastbound lanes of Route 901.

The northbound lanes are expected to remain closed overnight into Tuesday morning as the vehicles were removed and the accident reconstruction was completed.

The crash made headlines on the national news media including the top story on The Weather Channel.

___

(c)2022 The Citizens' Voice (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)

Update at 6:30 p.m. CT on March 28, 2022:

The Associated Press

POTTSVILLE, Pa. — Tractor-trailers and other vehicles lost control and slammed into each other, people leapt away from careering trucks seconds before collision and at least three people were killed and more than a dozen others injured during a snow squall on a Pennsylvania highway Monday.

The crash on Interstate 81 was captured in videos posted on social media that show drivers and passengers lining the snowy road and jumping out of the way as a cascade of crashes unfolds.

Dr. David J. Moylan, the Schuylkill County coroner, said three fatalities had been confirmed by late afternoon and that number could rise because fires were impeding rescuers.

In one video, an out of control tractor-trailer smashed into a large dump truck turning it nearly 180 degrees, another large truck caught fire and spewed black smoke into the air, and an SUV struck a passenger car sending it spinning narrowly past a person standing on the shoulder in snow and fog.

Video mounted on the dash of a vehicle showed how quickly the road conditions changed. Stopped vehicles rose like a wall in front of the driver, and a person on the roadway stretched their arms out and jumped to escape the runaway vehicle. The impact sounded like thunder.

The Schuylkill County Office of Emergency Management said the crash in northeast Pennsylvania happened around 10:30 a.m. Monday. John Blickley, the agency's deputy emergency management coordinator, said officials believe a snow squall clouded visibility and likely contributed to the crash.

Estimates of the number of vehicles involved from the emergency management agency and state police ranged between 40 and 60, including multiple tractor-trailers. Blickley said emergency personnel from four different counties took about 20 patients to area hospitals for treatment. Three tractor-trailers carrying unknown cargo were on fire when emergency personnel arrived and some smaller vehicles were also on fire, he said.

Pennsylvania State Police Trooper David Beohm said Monday afternoon that the fires were delaying a full investigation.

Fire units on the scene included a steady stream of water tankers because the crash is "in the middle of nowhere ... there's not a fire hydrant out here anywhere," Boehm said.

The highway was snow-covered when the snow squall came through, he said.

"All it takes is one person to crash into something and you have to pull off the road, but when you continue to drive at highway speed, this is what happens," he said.

People whose vehicles were in the crash and the "walking wounded" were taken to the Wegman's distribution center in an industrial park near the crash, he said, and a reunification center had been set up at the Goodwill Fire Company No. 1 in Minersville for people to meet friends or relatives or arrange accommodations.

Dane Groszek, of Middletown N.Y., made his way off of Interstate 81 after his car was totaled in a multi-vehicle crash Monday along Interstate 81. Groszek was on his way home after visiting family in Daytona,  Fla. 
Dane Groszek, of Middletown N.Y., made his way off of Interstate 81 after his car was totaled in a multi-vehicle crash Monday along Interstate 81. Groszek was on his way home after visiting family in Daytona,  Fla.  (Photo/David McKeown/Republican-Herald/Associated Press)

The National Weather Service had warned of "numerous brief heavy snow squalls with very poor visibility."

"The squalls will quickly reduce the visibility to under one-half of a mile and coat the roads with snow," forecasters said, urging drivers to get off the road if possible or turn on hazard lights "and gradually slow down to avoid a chain reaction vehicular accident."

Mike Colbert, a forecaster with the National Weather Service office in State College, said the weather service started issuing warnings for snow squalls a few years ago, and pileups of the kind being reported were the reason they began doing so.

"They are very heavy snow showers where if you are driving into them, you can go from partly cloudy or sunny skies into an instant blizzard in a matter of seconds. That's why they are so dangerous," he said.
 

Update at 1:12 p.m. on March 28, 2022:

Associated Press

POTTSVILLE, Pa. — A collision involving as many as 40 vehicles closed a portion of Interstate 81 in Pennsylvania and sent more than a dozen people to area hospitals on Monday, according to the Schuylkill County Office of Emergency Management.

The crash in northeast Pennsylvania happened around 10:30 a.m. and John Blickley, the deputy emergency management coordinator for the agency, said officials believe a snow squall clouded visibility and likely contributed to the accident. About 40 vehicles including multiple tractor trailers were involved in the initial crash, he said.

No fatalities had been reported to the Schuylkill County agency, but Blickley said emergency personnel from four different counties responded and took about 20 patients to area hospitals for treatment.

A message left for a Pennsylvania State Police spokesperson, seeking to confirm the number of injuries or any fatalities, was not immediately returned Monday.

Blickley said three tractor trailers carrying unknown cargo were on fire when emergency personnel responded. Smaller fires broke out out in other vehicles as well but all had been brought under control, he said.

Footage uploaded to social media on Monday showed an out of control tractor-trailer smash into a large dump truck, turning it nearly 180 degrees. Another large truck spewed black smoke and orange flames into the air and an SUV struck a passenger car sending the sedan spinning, narrowly missing its driver who stood on the shoulder of the highway shrouded in snow and fog.

The person who posted the video did not immediately respond to requests seeking additional information. People off camera can be heard yelling as the cascade of crashes unfolds with multiple vehicles colliding in less than a minute.

Schuylkill County's transportation authority helped transport uninjured motorists involved in the crash to a warming center set up by the local Red Cross, where family members can connect with them or they can arrange for rides.

The National Weather Service had warned of "numerous brief heavy snow squalls with very poor visibility."

"The squalls will quickly reduce the visibility to under one-half of a mile and coat the roads with snow," forecasters said, urging drivers to get off the road if possible or turn on hazard lights "and gradually slow down to avoid a chain reaction vehicular accident."

Mike Colbert, a forecaster with the National Weather Service office in State College, said the weather service started issuing warnings for snow squalls a few years ago, and pileups of the kind being reported were the reason they began doing so.

"They are very heavy snow showers where if you are driving into them, you can go from partly cloudy or sunny skies into an instant blizzard in a matter of seconds. That's why they are so dangerous," he said.

Blickley warned that the northbound section of the interstate will likely be closed "well into the evening" as the crash investigation and clean up continues. He also cautioned that more squall warnings are expected throughout the afternoon and asked people to be careful and pullover if needed.
 

Original reporting: 

By Rachel Engel

SCHUYLKILL COUNTY, Pa. — More than 20 vehicles were involved in a crash on Pennsylvania's I-81 between Exit 116 and 119, the Lebanon Daily Voice reported.

A tanker truck is reportedly on fire. 

Fire and EMS crews from area agencies are on scene, Patch.com reported

All lanes of traffic are closed in the area, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

The crash occurred around 11 a.m.

"I'm closely monitoring the situation along I-81 in Schuylkill County," Dr. Mehmet Oz, who is a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, posted on Twitter. "Thank you to all the first responders on the scene."

This is a developing story. More information will be added as it becomes available.

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