Fort Worth Mega-Wreck

As of this writing, about 16 hours after it started in the pre-dawn darkness, the massive icing-related vehicle pileup on I-35 in near northern Fort Worth has claimed 6 lives, with at least 65 people being treated for injuries. Here’s a rolling story from local TV station WFAA channel 8.

We’ve seen horror scenes like this in recent years from Interstates in places like Iowa, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. It illustrates the fundamental truth that the physics of friction know no geographic limits. I saw it in person in the ice storm of New Years Day 1979, when abandoned vehicles, that had slid off Central Expressway in Dallas, sported not just Texas plates, but Indiana, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, among others. Nobody, from anywhere, is immune to sliding on icy roads. Neither maturity, nor experience, nor even understanding of the laws of physics, makes one immune to them. And a lot of drivers have none of the above.

I’ve driven this stretch of Interstate many times. It’s ideally prone to a mass crash of this sort: an elevated roadway (preferentially ices), headed southbound into an area of tight curves and narrow lanes near downtown, with the approach not visible over a blind hill, where a crash can’t be seen at highway speeds until too late. The thin ice glaze had begun not long before, overnight when traffic was lower. Local officials claimed the road had been salted, but obviously insufficiently.

It was the perfect storm of bad circumstances for such a disaster, except for one aspect: the weather forecast from NWS Ft. Worth (incidentally, located just a couple miles from this mess) was very good, so that wasn’t the problem. Likely some weren’t paying attention to the local forecast or otherwise were ignorant of it (here’s looking at both locals and long-haul truckers).

It’s not as simple as “stay home” either. Many people still are “critical/essential” workers who have to report to in-person duties regardless of weather (including storm forecasters like me!); indeed, the story notes quite a few people in the pileup were health workers. Such situations present a major hazard to first responders (cops, fire crews, ambulances) who have to get in there, close off the scene, sort through the carnage, and treat and remove people. It’s also hazardous to second responders (wrecker personnel, HAZMAT remediators, sanitation crews who have to clean up the roadway of debris, and such). As the story notes, these are events for which emergency management prepares, but hopes not to need to execute their plans. They had to here.

Vehicle-to-vehicle communications tech could help in these scenarios, but is a long way off from standardized mass deployment, and realistically, mostly won’t be retrofitted on older vehicles. Trucking firms should prioritize for this, since their momentum and deadliness are greatest in general, and clearly were here (if you’ve seen the crash video taken from a car on the opposite side of the freeway).

Pray for the injured and the families of the casualties.


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