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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Icy Roads Cause 31 Car big Pileup on Highway 40

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FEBRUARY 23, 2011 - A pileup crash on eastbound Highway 40 (Interstate 64) west of the Grand Boulevard exit Wednesday morning in St. Louis involved more than two dozen cars and tractor-trailers. Photo by Johnny Andrews 
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ST. LOUIS • Nearly two dozen people were injured in a 31-vehicle pileup on Highway 40 (Interstate 64) as freezing rain caught road crews off guard and left the early morning rush hour a slippery mess throughout the region.
Crashes were reported from St. Charles to the Metro East, but the worst spot was on Highway 40 eastbound near Vandeventer Avenue in St. Louis, where a 5 a.m. pileup closed the interstate between Grand Boulevard and Kingshighway. Two fire trucks, two ambulances and a fire department supervisor's truck ended up involved in the crash after coming to the scene to help, according to Capt. Dan Sutter of the St. Louis Fire Department.
The eastbound lanes were finally reopened at 9:30 a.m.
Sutter said 21 people were injured in the pileup. One person was taken to a hospital in critical condition, but was stabilized at the hospital, he said. That person had gotten out of a vehicle and was then pinned when another car joined the pileup.
Injuries to other motorists — and one firefighter — were considered minor, Sutter said. Rescuers said it was amazing more people weren't seriously injured.
"It was terrifying," said Patience Rhodes, who driving to work in Granite City when she came upon a jack-knifed tractor-trailer, one of three involved in the wreck.
Rhodes, 28, of Webster Groves, said she closed her eyes and screamed just before impact.
"If I'm going to go, I don't want to see it," Rhodes said later, as she waited by her mangled car before heading to a hospital. She said she was fortunate to walk away with only some neck and back pain.
Her 2009 Nissan Maxima, which she nicknamed Melanie, was totaled, but she said that can be replaced.
"I just paid the monthly car note yesterday and filled her up with gas this morning," said Rhodes, who was in good spirits. "She's ready to go — straight to the junkyard. RIP Melanie."
Driver Jamie Birk, 34, of Florissant, said he crested the hill just west of the pileup and found a tractor-trailer sideways across the road and a car that had spun around and was facing him head on. He managed to avoid both and pulled his Pontiac Grand Prix off to the side of the road.
"I saw a woman lying on the ground and I helped her up," Birk said. "Then we heard boom, boom, boom" as more cars crashed into the pileup, he said.
CAUGHT OFF GUARD
The Missouri Department of Transportation said it was caught off guard by the freezing rain.
Tom Blair, MoDOT's St. Louis assistant district engineer, said the meteorologists paid by MoDOT to make predictions about how weather will affect pavement told MoDOT at 4:20 a.m. Wednesday that there was a "chance" of freezing rain.
"They said there was going to be a chance — they didn't say it was going to happen — a chance of freezing rain hitting the St. Louis area," Blair said. "I don't think this was a clear-cut one to them. They shared the forecast as soon as they thought there was a a chance. They did not see this coming."
MoDOT immediately alerted crews who had been on the streets repairing potholes at 4 a.m. that they should convert their trucks to spread salt, Blair said. Supervisors then began waking up more crews. They called about 100 MoDOT employees at home at about 4:30 a.m. to have them come to work. They scrambled to treat the roads.
"At 5 a.m., we have quite an army of salt trucks on the road," Blair said. "But by about 5 o'clock the damage had already been done, and we were already seing a lot of incidents."
The National Weather Service also missed predicting the icy rain.
Fred Glass, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Weldon Spring, said: "It was unexpected until, literally, we were starting to see it. That speaks for everyone in the forecast community."
Glass said forecasters use many resources to develop a forecast and, on Tuesday, "none of them indicated we were going to get precipitation developing in the overnight period."
The precipitation started blowing up very rapidly in southwest Missouri and southeast Kansas just a little before midnight Tuesday, then moving up along the Interstate 44 corridor, Glass said.

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