Sending my thoughts and prayers to all affected by this horrible crash. Please, let’s all drive slow in the rainy or icy weather.
What started as an average day for Ryan Chaney turned into something straight out of a disaster movie as he found himself trying to pull people from the wreckage of a mass-casualty crash in Fort Worth on Thursday morning, February 11, 2021.
Chaney, an independent trucker from Argyle, was driving south on I-35 to work, where he hauls power poles for Sabre Industries. The 6 a.m. traffic moved semi-normally, with Chaney and most drivers going about 60 mph on mostly dry roads.
As he neared the 820 interchanges, Chaney noticed his headlights reflecting off the surface of the road and recognized there could be black ice. He and other cars around him slowed down to about 20 mph.
But as he reached the 35W bridge near downtown Fort Worth, the road turned into “a solid sheet of ice,” he said. The driver next to him spun out and hit a guardrail. He slid into the car, luckily not causing much damage, and gained enough control to pull to the side of the highway.
Chaney got out of his truck and stood next to a guardrail that separated him from the TEXPress lanes. He asked the other driver that spun out if he was all right. As the driver told him that he was fine, he heard sliding sounds from the TEXPress lines beside him.
As he recovered from his own fender bender in the main lanes of traffic, Chaney watched a car slide on the ice and into the guardrail inside the TEXPress lanes. Another car was unable to slow down and smashed into the first car.
“The truck behind that vehicle tried to sacrifice himself into the concrete barrier, but the ice was so slick that as soon as he hit the brakes, it was over,” Chaney said. “He pushed them about 30 feet. And then it was car, truck, car, truck, car — it was never-ending.”
Car slid and crashed into one another for about three minutes. During a pause in the chaos, Chaney jumped over the guardrail to try and help. He found some people who needed help getting out of their cars. Most of the people seemed OK, so Chaney started to walk through the pile-up to see if more people needed help.
The crash quickly became worse. A grain hopper smashed into the stopped cars and exploded, he said.
“I couldn’t see a foot in front of my face,” he said. “All that stuff was in the air, and I figured that’s where I should focus my attention, where it was worse.”
He saw a woman inside a small car, crumpled to the point that he could not tell what kind of car it was. She was screaming, so he jumped the rail and tried to get to her. He was in-between a tractor-trailer, the rear of a tractor-trailer, and her car, which was wedged between the two vehicles.
He was trying to help her out of the trapped car when he saw a Fed-Ex truck heading toward them. He dove under the tractor-trailer and watched helplessly as the truck slammed into the woman.
“And she was crushed to death,” he said.
In a Facebook Live video he posted later, Chaney described the moment.
“I witnessed (someone) die in front of me, where I barely got out with my life. I mean, nearly missed it,” he said in the video. “I heard the truck hit, I heard the explosion, then I heard cars and metal crunching and I threw myself under a semi-truck trailer just behind me. And that lady that I was trying to get out of her car got crushed to death. But I did rescue a few other people who I was able to drag out of their vehicle.”
After he watched the woman he was trying to save die, Chaney said his “brain kind of shut off.”
He remembers a second truck hit the growing pile-up at high speed. The crash became denser as cars continued to pile on top of one another. Fires sprang from the wreckage, and Chaney turned toward the front of the crash site again.
A man started to yell for him and said a woman was trapped inside her car. She was on her phone and screaming. Chaney used his fists and a pocket blade to knock out her window and pull her out of the car. On a Facebook Live video posted after the crash, Chaney shows his bloodied, cut-up hands.
He helped the woman, who was not wearing a jacket, to his truck, then continued to walk through the crash. One trucker needed help getting out of the vehicle, which was smoking and dumping diesel. He walked away, thanking Chaney.
“Some of it, I don’t remember,” he said. “After that lady got crushed, I don’t remember much.”
In total, around 100 vehicles were part of the roughly mile-long wreckage, according to authorities.
Six people have been confirmed dead, and about 65 were injured.
Aftermath of crash
First responders started to show up to the crash. Chaney walked up and down the crash site in areas where he could get through and check on people through their windows. He gave them a thumbs up and, if they gave him a thumbs up in return, he would move on. He helped a few more people out of their cars.
At about 7:30 a.m., a little over an hour after Chaney saw the first car hit a guardrail, he drove himself and the woman he pulled from her car away. He drove to the hospital — not to get medical attention, but because the woman worked in the medical field and knew the hospital where she worked would need her help.
At 7:34 a.m., he posted a Facebook Live explaining what happened. He described the crash as “a genocide of metal.”
Then, not knowing where else to go and in a state of shock, Chaney drove to work. He started to haul power poles for Sabre and made a full loop of his usual route down to Alvarado and into Kennedale.
“I need to get paid. My bills don’t stop,” he said. “The highway was shut down and the only way I could go was to work.”
After his first loop, however, he realized he needed to go home. At about 2:45 p.m., he made it back to his house and started to try and process what happened.
“People called me a hero, but I’m just like no. It’s kind of fight or flight,” he said. “Either you leave or you stay and fight it out. And my instinct was to stay and see what I could do. I didn’t want to just pull out my phone and record like a pansy.”
He urged people to stop sharing photos and videos of the crash, warning that people might recognize a loved one’s car in the wreckage before they know what happened to them.
“Nobody needs to see that, especially people that were there that witnessed things,” he said. “Because then they relive it.”
He said he is “internally confused and sad,” and frustrated by the way people were trapped in the pile-up by the TEXpress lanes. The lanes require motorists to pay an electronic toll as a way to pay their way around congestion that chronically occurs near downtown Fort Worth.
“You’re trapped by two walls,” he said. “It was basically turned into a gigantic slip and slide.”
Credit: Journalist Kaley Johnson / Yahoo news
Here is another article by Journalist Gordon Dickson of the Fort Worth Star-News giving the reason why this part of the Interstate is so dangerous.
The area where six people were killed early Thursday during a 133-car pileup on an ice-coated Interstate 35W is known for its chronic traffic congestion.
In 2018, a $1.4 billion expansion and modernization of I-35W was completed north of downtown Fort Worth — yet traffic continues grinding to a halt, not just during rush hour, but throughout the day and night.
Why can’t this problem be fixed?
Part of the issue is that another freeway, Texas 121 — also known as Airport Freeway — dead-ends at I-35W near downtown Fort Worth, about two miles south of Thursday’s crash. That merger forces lots of cars into a relatively small space — and motorists trying to get from 121 to I-30 must cross several lanes of traffic in less than a mile to get to their exit, which during heavy traffic (or bad weather) can cause gridlock for miles up the road.
In the 1980s, the state proposed extending Texas 121 around the north side of downtown Fort Worth and extending the roadway into southwest Fort Worth, which would relieve much of the stressful lane-changing. But that plan was opposed by neighborhood groups, many of whom worried about the impact on historical Samuels Avenue.
“It absolutely would have facilitated the flow of all that traffic to the southwest, but people were concerned about the impact to Trinity Park and the river and Samuels Avenue,” said Bill Meadows, a former Fort Worth councilman and Texas Transportation Commission member who also served on the city’s Streams and Valleys organization in the 1980s.
In addition to the bottleneck caused by highway mergers, the 2018 expansion project created a new set of toll lanes — known as TEXPress lanes — in the median of I-35W. The toll lanes require motorists to pay electronically (most car owners do that by affixing a TollTag to their windshield), but once you’re in the toll lanes there are limited places to exit.
Thursday’s pileup occurred near where the TEXPress lanes merge back into the non-toll freeway main lanes, in an area between 28th Street and Northside Drive. The lanes merge back into the non-toll main lanes on the left side of the road, which often caused motorists in the fast lane to brake and swerve. The speed limit is 75 mph on the TEXPress lanes where the crash occurred, and there are no shoulders or breakdown lanes.
The private consortium of companies that built the express lanes for the Texas Department of Transportation is known as North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners. That group is responsible for the maintenance of the toll and non-toll lanes.
Videos of the pileup aftermath taken by passers-by appear to show the pavement iced over when cars and trucks began to smash into each other. However, a spokesman for the North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners told the Star-Telegram the company had been actively working to keep ice off the roads.
“NTE & NTE35W maintenance crews started pre-treating our corridors on Tuesday and have been spot treating since then,” spokesman Robert Hinkle said in an email.
But one state elected leader is calling for an investigation into NTE Mobility Partners’ role in the maintenance of the I-35W corridor.
State Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, whose district includes the site of the deadly crash, said he is “not a fan” of the state entering into partnerships with private companies to build and operate roads that ought to be the responsibility of the state. He said he is concerned that for-profit companies could overlook safety issues such as preventable bottlenecks.
“Texas should be doing this on our own,” Romero said in a phone interview. “Now we have created this clearly a very dangerous trap.”
Romero said that based on the videos and photos of the pileup that he saw, he doesn’t think NTE Mobility Partners had even tried to deice that stretch of I-35W.
“It sure sounds false to me,” Romero said. “The officers and fire folks that are there now, they’re hurting because they had to pull all those people out of those cars, and they know how it happened. Those folks didn’t have the ability to break.”
Beyond the deicing issue, Romero said he wants to learn more about how the state managed to spend $1.4 billion on road improvements yet didn’t add any non-toll lanes.
Southbound I-35W features three lanes heading toward downtown Fort Worth, but when motorists get to the Belknap Street exit the freeway shrinks to only two lanes. There, many motorists wait until the last second to get out of the merging right lane, and that can cause backups for several miles all the way to 28th Street — near the site of Thursday’s tragic pileup.
Video credit: YouTube.com