January 27, 2005
Duluth, Minn. — The pileup began around 8:15 a.m., with what's believed to have been a rear-end accident between two vehicles in a bank of dense fog. Soon, other vehicles were careening together in what police say was actually three separate accidents. The crashes involved 16 cars and three semi-trucks.
A small car was pinned and crushed between two semis. According to Kevin Smith, with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, the driver of one of the cars was pregnant and severely injured.
"She was 36 weeks along. At the hospital the baby was delivered this morning, and later in the morning, the baby died," said Smith.
The baby was the lone fatality from the accident. Seven others, including the mother, were injured. Two remain in critical condition.
Investigators are still trying to piece together details, but Smith says the leading cause was a bank of fog that enveloped the higher section of the bridge's roadway.
"Dense fog is one of the contributing -- if not the contributing factor to this crash," Smith said. "Some of the people involved in the crash have said that they couldn't even tell the color of the car they ran into, because the fog was so dense -- that if you were standing within a foot or foot and a half of someone that you couldn't have seen them." Emergency response came from both sides of the bridge -- Duluth and Superior. But the response was hampered by traffic which was backed up and blocking all four traffic lanes. Minnesota State Patrol Sgt. Mark Baker says the scene was chaotic.
"When I arrived you probably could see five, six feet ahead of you, and that was it. The fog would continually move in and out, and it would move very quickly," said Baker. "It would be clear; you could see the sun. The fog would move back across the bridge and it was very difficult to see again."
Baker said rescue crews had a hard time responding quickly.
"We had difficulty getting large equipment into the scene, because the vehicles on the bridge at that time was all backed up. We needed to back vehicles off the bridge in order to get some of the heavy equipment -- the fire department rigs and some of the ambulance stuff to the scene to get to the people," said Baker.
Crews peeled off the top of a minivan -- little was left recognizable beyond shredded metal and four wheels. A jackknifed semi's tractor pointed straight off the side of the bridge; t-boned by its flatbed trailer. Nearby a pickup truck pointed the other way.
All the vehicles had been in the eastbound lanes of Highway 2 -- the lanes which travel from Minnesota to Wisconsin. The four-lane highway bridge was closed to traffic and remained closed most of the day.
Kurt Mayer, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Duluth, says it's not unusual to see low fog banks in the area on cold mornings. Mayer says this morning's fog was the combination of high pressure and cold air, which gets trapped at the bottom of Duluth's hillsides.
"The fog that developed this morning was related to just cold air passing over the colder lake. The fog rolled in off the lake, and it sets up an inversion. This inversion will trap the fog near the surface," said Mayer.
The fog may have been usual for a cold morning, but Sgt. Mark Baker says the accident wasn't. He says he's never seen anything like it.
"Nothing that I recall. Nothing to this extent," said Baker. "We've had crashes in fog before. This was thicker fog than what we normally see in our area, and accidents to this extent I haven't seen in my 20 years as a state trooper."
Traffic resumed across the bridge late in the afternoon, after tow trucks removed wreckage and Department of Transportation crews cleaned up the mess.