Responding to criticism about their response to last week’s massive pileup on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Pennsylvania State Police say troopers did the best they could handling the mess.
Pa. State Police Sgt. Michael Chambers told NBC10 on Monday, troopers, including himself, were responding to another serious crash on the Northeast Extension, which required a medical helicopter to be dispatched, when the Turnpike pileup occurred.
“I think everything went very well, but I think unfortunately we had two major crashes and that really affected the way that we were able to handle that 100 car pileup,” he said.
More than 100 cars, trucks and tractor trailers were involved in the pileup that began around 8:30 a.m. on Friday in the eastbound lanes of the Turnpike. There were several groups of crashes along a 5 mile stretch of the highway between Lower Southampton to Bensalem, Bucks County. Hundreds of people were left trapped on the highway for several hours and 27 people were injured, some seriously, in the incident.
Drivers complained that the highway was icy at the time of the crash.
“It was icy,” said Steve Caldwell, a truck driver who was caught up in the pileup. “It wasn’t a little bit. It was two inches thick of ice. I just kept sliding, sliding and sliding.”
Speed restrictions were lifted on the Turnpike about an hour before the pileup. State Police who were on the scene insisted that maintenance crews treated the Turnpike before the restrictions were lifted.
“I do know the roads were salted,” Chambers said adding that he heard a plow train radioing from the highway around 7:15 a.m. that morning.
Despite the large pileup, however, the highway remained open, slowing down first responders and allowing more drivers to get ensnarled in the stopped traffic.
Fred Harran, Director of Public Safety for Bensalem, Pa., says his department wasn’t informed there was a major crash on the Turnpike until after NBC10 called asking for information.
“I was informed by NBC and then I got on the phone with State Police and asked if they wanted our assistance,” he said.
Feeling the response was taking too long, Harran said he ordered his officers to go and close the highway.
“We couldn’t get equipment to us,” Harran said. “I made the decision to shut the Turnpike down.”
Harran questioned why it took so long to shut down the roadway.
Sources close to the accident investigation say there were major communication problems at the time. At one point, State Police say only one trooper caught in the traffic was on the scene.
Chambers acknowledged that it took more than an hour for the westbound lanes of the toll road to be closed to allow first responders to get to the scene and help the injured. He said troopers also had a tough time getting to the scene.
“It was a very difficult time getting to the actual scene. I actually had to get off the Turnpike myself and access it through the back roads,” he said. “There was confusion because we were stuck in the backlog which is the four mile line of traffic eastbound that we couldn’t get through.”
Chambers, who served as incident commander, said there was a lack of coordination from the scene until he got there. He also said troopers, at first, were focused on ensuring the injured were treated before trying to close the highway. Once the “life safety” issues were handled, troopers began to move drivers off the interstate, the sergeant said.
Two corporals came up from behind the crashes and walked through the stopped traffic, directing drivers to turn and drive the opposite way along the highway, according to Chambers.
“You have to remember it’s a 100-plus car pileup you have to be slow and methodical with what you’re doing. You just have to make sure you’re doing everything correctly and attend to the injured first,” Chambers said.
The Turnpike remained closed for more than 8 hours until all drivers were removed from the scene and the crash was cleaned up.
Chambers said the investigation into the pileup is ongoing and that officials will be doing a post-mortem to see if anything should be changed for responding to future incidents.
“Obviously we’re going to talk about it in meetings and decide what the best route will be next time and learn from our mistakes,” Chamber said.
Only one of the victims hurt during the pileup remains in the hospital. That person is in good condition.