On Jan. 6, 2004, a fast-moving snowstorm along Interstate 80 in central Pennsylvania produced ice-covered highways and whiteout conditions along a 10-mile stretch of the highway. A major multi-casualty accident covering a distance of 3,000 feet and involving 30 tractor-trailer trucks and 14 other vehicles occurred at 11:08 A.M. in Boggs Township, which is in Centre County.
The accident claimed the lives of six occupants of passenger vehicles and injured 17 other people. Several other accidents occurred in the area at the same time, stretching first-responding units to their limits.
Before this incident was concluded nearly 32 hours later, agencies from five counties with over 250 personnel became involved. The westbound lanes of the highway remained closed for an additional 24 hours for accident reconstruction and cleanup operations to be completed.
The Bellefonte Fire Department ? consisting of the Logan and Undine Volunteer Fire Companies ? was dispatched at 11:11 A.M. for a reported accident on Interstate 80 between Exits 161 (Bellefonte) and 158 (Milesburg). Bellefonte Rescue-Engine 1-14, a 1,500-gpm pumper, responded at 11:12 with four firefighters under the command of Bellefonte Deputy Chief Robert Frazier Jr.
While responding, Frazier was advised by the Centre County Communications Center that it was receiving reports that 10 to 15 tractor-trailers were involved. Frazier requested mutual aid from the Citizen?s Hook and Ladder Fire Company of Milesburg at 11:12. Rescue-Engine 9-14 a 2,000-gpm pumper, responded under the command of Chief Brian Burns with seven firefighters. Bellefonte Engine 2-10, a 1,000-gpm pumper, responded at 11:15 with five firefighters under the command of Captain Jayson Lose.
Also responding on the first alarm were two basic life support (BLS) ambulances from Bellefonte Emergency Medical Services, Medic 24, a paramedic unit from Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College, and Medic 15, a paramedic unit from Lock Haven Hospital in Clinton County.
As Milesburg Rescue-Engine 9-14 was entering Interstate 80 on the eastbound ramp, Burns could see that the accident was in the westbound lanes. There were no emergency cross-overs, and the next exit was where Bellefonte was entering, so Burns decided to have the engine turn around, exit the on-ramp and proceed up the westbound off-ramp going east in the westbound lanes.
Bellefonte Rescue-Engine 1-14 reached the westbound on-ramp at 11:22. Firefighters witnessed additional accidents occurring as they proceeded up the on-ramp, including two tractor-trailers jackknifing in the westbound lanes and a modular home sitting on the roadway after it had fallen off another tractor-trailer. Traffic was backed up over one mile from the location of the major accident. Bellefonte Engine 2-10 was directed to proceed east from Exit 161 to the mile marker 163 crossover and proceed west, checking for additional accidents.
Courtesy of Centre County EMA
View looking east from the command post in the westbound lanes. Removal of vehicles began almost immediately to gain access to people trapped in the wreckage.
Frazier was notified by the communications center that Pennsylvania State Police troopers were at the scene of the major accident and requesting multiple ambulances and the coroner. At this time, two additional ambulances were requested from Alpha Ambulance Company in State College, one from Snowshoe Ambulance Company and two from the Pleasant Gap Fire Department EMS.
Milesburg Rescue-Engine 9-14 reached the west side of the accident scene at 11:23. Burns advised there were three severely entrapped victims and that multiple tractor-trailers were on fire. Burns established command for the Exit 158 accident on the west side of the incident and Frazier established command for the Exit 161 accident scene. After the crew from Bellefonte Rescue-Engine 1-14 and Pennsylvania State Police troopers had checked all the vehicles in the area and determined there were no injuries at the Exit 161 accident scene, Bellefonte Rescue-Engine 1-14 proceeded to the eastern side of the mile marker 159 accident scene. Firefighters were met by motorists and ?walking wounded? heading toward them and also saw several vehicles on fire.
Burns requested that the Centre County Hazardous Materials Response Team, operated by Pennsylvania State University in State College, respond at 11:25. Sixteen team members responded with Haz-Mat 20-29 and Utility 20-21 under the direction of Chief Ron Schreffler. Team members were given responsibility for monitoring water runoff, decontamination of fire and rescue personnel, and containment of hazardous materials. The team members also worked in conjunction with the Pennsylvania state-certified cleanup contractor that responded to the scene for cleanup operations. Also, the Loyalsock Fire Company from Lycoming County was requested to send Mobile Air Unit 18 to support the need for breathing air for refilling self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). This unit was set up with the Penn State Haz-Mat Team.
At 11:29, Burns reported three confirmed entrapments, one in a tractor-trailer with fire impinging on the cab area and that another tractor-trailer placarded ?Dangerous, Poison, Flammable and Corrosive? was on fire nearby. Burns then requested four additional rescues, four tankers and three medical helicopters. Heavy Rescue 14-18 from Howard, Heavy Rescue 8-18 from Pleasant Gap, Heavy Rescue 3-18 from Boalsburg and Heavy Rescue 5-18 from Alpha Fire Company in State College responded. Tankers dispatched were Bellefonte Tanker 2-19, Citizen?s Hook and Ladder Tanker 9-20, Walker Township Tanker 16-19 and Engine-Tanker 9-1 from the Beech Creek Blanchard Volunteer Fire Department in Clinton County. Helicopters dispatched were the Stat-Medevac from Altoona Hospital, Geisinger Life Fight from Danville stationed in Bellefonte and the Penn State Hershey Life Lion from Hershey Medical Center. Frazier and Burns met on the west side of the scene and command was consolidated into one incident temporarily until a unified command system could be established. The crew from Rescue-Engine 1-14 began reconnaissance and fire attack on the east side of the scene.
Medic 24 with Paramedic Rich Kelley arrived on the east side of the accident and with Ambulance 26-51 established a triage area to determine the types of injuries and to move the non-injured people out of the weather. Ambulance 26-52 eventually transported these patients to the Bellefonte exit, where EMS command had arranged for BLS transport units to meet them. Six patients were triaged at that site and transported by ambulances from Beech Creek Blanchard Ambulance, Mountaintop Fire Company EMS, Lock Haven EMS and Pleasant Gap Fire Department EMS. Ambulance 26-51 and Medic 24 then returned to the ambulance staging area on the east side of the accident. On the west side, Jason Nobrega from Bellefonte Emergency Medical Services set up a triage area and established medical command. Triage was completed by personnel from Alpha Ambulance Company.
A crew from Milesburg started extrication of a female passenger pinned in a car. Firefighters used hydraulic cutters to quickly extricate this victim. There was no fire threatening this person, who was transported to Mount Nittany Medical Center by ambulance with serious injuries.
A tanker dumpsite was established on the west side of the incident in the westbound lanes using two portable tanks. Milesburg Rescue-Engine 9-14 drafted out of portable tanks and supplied two 13?4-inch lines and a step gun for fire attack and victim and rescue crew protection from the fires that were burning all around them. This tanker shuttle involved tankers from Milesburg, Beech Creek-Blanchard Fire Company and Snow Shoe Fire Company. Tankers refilled at a hydrant near Exit 158 on North Eagle Valley Road, two miles away. This tanker shuttle operation had to be shut down when the removal of vehicles began. All water supply operations were then transferred to the eastbound lanes.
Courtesy of Centre County EMA
A view of the accident scene, midway through the wreckage, looking west to east. The trucks seen burning here were hauling coal, trash and rolled paper. Several passenger cars were also burning at this time.
Firefighters on the east side of the accident performed initial fire suppression operations from Bellefonte Rescue-Engine 1-14. Bellefonte Tanker 2-19 supported this engine. While waiting for a second tanker to arrive, it was decided to relocate the operation to the eastbound lanes. Two dumpsites were established in the eastbound lanes. Nittany Valley Volunteer Fire Company Engine 17-1 and Bellefonte Rescue-Engine 1-14 were each supplied by a dumpsite. This tanker shuttle operation was supported by tankers from Nittany Valley, Mill Hall, Woolrich, Bellefonte, Walker Township, Centre Hall, Alpha Fire Company from State College and Pine Glen. Crews operated a step gun and multiple 13?4-inch lines for fire suppression. Tankers refilled at a hydrant in Bellefonte, three miles away, and at Exit 158, two miles away.
As the additional four heavy rescues arrived, Rescues 14-18 and 8-18 were assigned to assist a crew from Milesburg with the extrication of the heavily entrapped driver in a tractor-trailer. This tractor-trailer was located 500 feet from the west end of the accident and required crews to carry their rescue equipment to the scene by hand or on push carts. Pleasant Gap Fire Chief Gary Royer was placed in charge of this extrication. Firefighters used three sets of hydraulic rescue tools and ?every hand tool they could find? during the hour-long extrication. This person was transported by Snow Shoe EMS Ambulance to the landing zone at Exit 158 and then flown to Altoona General Hospital by Stat-Medevac in serious condition. During the extrication process, crews were standing on top of other cars that were crushed in the wreckage to free the driver.
Crews from Rescues 3-18 and 5-18 assisted personnel from Rescue-Engine 9-14 in extrication of the third victim. This patient was the driver of a mini-van that was crushed between two tractor-trailers and adjacent to the tractor-trailer with the hazardous material cargo. Crews operated on this extrication for approximately 20 minutes. Unfortunately, this person succumbed to injuries before the extrication could be completed. Command officers decided to pull the crews from this area due to the hazardous materials fire before the remains could be removed. The other five victims who died in the accident were never located by any of the crews as their vehicles were already completely engulfed in fire before firefighters arrived on the scene.
Bellefonte Engine 2-10, checking the backlog for additional accidents, located an accident involving a tractor-trailer and a passenger car east of the Exit 161 westbound on-ramp. The car was underneath the rear of the trailer and the female passenger was entrapped with her arm being pinned between the bottom of the trailer and the dash of the car. Lose requested a heavy rescue to the scene for assistance. The Citizens Hose Company, located 25 miles away in Lock Haven, Clinton County, sent Heavy Rescue 6-6.
With only limited hand tools, firefighters on Engine 2-10 obtained car jacks from motorists who were stopped and used them to lift the trailer from the dash of the car. Along with the jacks, firefighters used saws and other hand tools to free the victim before the Citizens Hose rescue arrived, which was delayed because of the poor road conditions. This extrication took approximately 45 minutes. Ambulance 8-50 from Pleasant Gap Fire Department EMS transported the victim to Mount Nittany Medical Center.
Bellefonte Fire Chief Tim Knisely arrived on scene at noon and met with Burns at the command post on the west side of the scene. At this time, Knisely also met with Randy Rockey, emergency management coordinator for Centre County, to request the county?s command bus and to determine a location for the unified command post. In 20 minutes, the unified command system was operational and the command function was transferred. Burns took charge of the west sector and Frazier was placed in charge of the east sector. Knisely assumed the position of incident commander.
At approximately 12:30 P.M., a large chemical ignition occurred in the tractor-trailer that contained the hazardous materials waste. This produced a fireball that reached 300 feet into the air. The operations sector immediately requested all companies do a personnel accountability report (PAR). None of the firefighters operating at the scene were injured.
Courtesy of Centre County EMA
University Park Airport?s crash-fire-rescue (CFR) apparatus applies high-volume foam to the hazardous materials fires.
The Centre County Mobile Command Post bus arrived on scene at 12:45, and all command functions were moved into the bus. Prior to this, command was operating out of a Centre County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) vehicle and a Bellefonte fire chief?s vehicle. This allowed representatives from fire, EMS and hazmat agencies, the Pennsylvania State Police, Emergency Management Agency, Centre County Communications Center and the Red Cross to meet, discuss operations and coordinate efforts.
The wind was blowing east toward the Bellefonte exit during the incident. After reviewing the bills of lading obtained from the tractor-trailers, hazmat personnel recommended shutting down all operations on the east side due to the heavy smoke conditions and the types of hazardous materials that were burning. Eastbound traffic was already stopped, but the lanes were now needed for apparatus access. All units operating down wind were relocated to the eastbound lanes and upwind of the smoke.
At 12:49, crews completed the extrication of the tractor trailer driver. Firefighters were withdrawn to a safe location to allow fire suppression efforts to continue. After the fire was knocked down, crews from the Alpha Fire Company made a secondary search of the vehicles on the east side while Bellefonte firefighters searched vehicles on the west side. No other victims were found who could be rescued at this time.
A 1,000-foot five-inch supply line was hand laid from a hydrant on Old Route 220, up over an embankment to the eastbound lanes by firefighters from Milesburg Engine 9-12. Hope-Philipsburg Engine 11-10 reverse laid 1,500 feet of five-inch supply line from Bellefonte Rescue-Engine 1-14 and operated as a relay pumper. Bellefonte Rescue-Engine 1-14 supplied several step guns and a master stream from Bellefonte Truck 2-16, a 75-foot aerial. After this supply line was established, one of the tanker shuttles was eliminated.
To assist in the aerial master stream effort, Burns then requested Alpha Fire Company Truck 5-17, a 95-foot aerial tower, and also the crash-fire-rescue (CFR) truck from the University Park Airport in Bellefonte. Nittany Valley Engine 17-1 supplied water to both Truck 5-17 and the CFR truck. This operation was supplied by the remaining tanker shuttle.
Firefighting operations continued through the afternoon. The airport CFR truck applied foam with its turret nozzle in an effort to control the hazardous materials fire as the two aerial master streams were used to extinguish the fires in the other tractor-trailers carrying coal, paper and trash. Four foam handlines were used on the car and truck fuel tank spills and fires.
The Centre County Fire Chief?s Association had established a Foam Task Force with 100 five-gallon buckets of AFFF foam strategically located at four fire stations throughout the county. Fifty buckets were used in addition to the foam carried on the CFR truck.
At 5:30, the remaining tanker shuttle was shut down, leaving just the hydrant supply line in operation during the night. By 11 P.M., fire suppression operations had been scaled back with only a few small fires burning downwind of the hazardous materials trailer. Firefighters used several handlines to control the small fires during the night. Crews had a difficult time in keeping the handlines from freezing as the wind chill was 11 degrees below zero.
Courtesy of Centre County EMA
Units are tearing down a portable tank on the westbound lanes after all fire operations were moved to the east side to allow easier removal of the vehicles. EMS units are staged in the eastbound lanes.
Relief crews from Blair County fire departments arrived 11:30 P.M. and operated from midnight until 6 A.M. on Jan. 7. Twenty-five firefighters from the Duncansville Fire Company, Bald Eagle Fire Department from Tyrone, Tyrone Blazing Arrow Fire Department from Tyrone and Friendship Fire Company from Roaring Spring operated at the scene. Due to complications with the hazmat overpacking, many of the crews were staged idle for several hours. At approximately 3 A.M., several drums of what was later identified as hydrochloric acid that had been on the tractor-trailer carrying hazardous waste began leaking from the over-pack drums. The labels on the original drums had burned off in the fire and the chemicals were unknown. This forced firefighters, recovery workers and state troopers to leave the area until the hydrochloric acid could be contained. Eagle Tire & Recovery, a state-certified response and recovery hazmat team, coordinated the cleanup of the hazardous materials.
At 4:30 A.M., additional relief crews from Huntingdon and Lycoming counties were requested to provide support from 6 A.M. until noon. Huntingdon County Rescue 6 from McConnellstown Volunteer Fire Company and Engine 10-1 from Smithfield Fire Department in Huntingdon, and Lycoming County Rescue-Engine 2 from Woodward Township in Linden and Loyalsock Township Fire Department Engine 18 responded with 24 firefighters.
Shortly after daybreak, Engine 11-10 lost water pressure from the hydrant supply. The hydrant, rated at 175 psi, was supplied from a 500,000-gallon reservoir. The water tank also supplied the hydrants along North Eagle Valley Road that were used by the tankers earlier. It was later learned that the tank had been completely drained and not restored. Tankers from Bellefonte, Miles Township Fire Company and Snow Shoe were dispatched to the scene to provide a water supply. Since the water demand for firefighting operations was reduced at this time, tankers supplied the engines directly and a dumpsite was not necessary. Heavy Rescues 14-18 from the Howard Fire Company and 15-18 from the Port Matilda Volunteer Fire Company were also requested to respond to provide rescue operations and air supply for the ongoing hazmat cleanup operations.
From noon until operations were completed at 7 P.M., firefighters from Bellefonte, Milesburg, Pleasant Gap, Howard and Port Matilda operated at the scene. At this time, all hazardous materials had been contained and removed.
Not all of the body removal could be completed at the scene. Vehicles were covered with tarps and transported on flat bed trucks to a local garage where the recovery was completed by the Centre County Coroner?s Office. Due to the number of fatalities, coroners from nearby counties assisted Centre County officials. It took several weeks to positively identify all of the victims due to the fact that they were burned beyond recognition.
Weather was a major factor during this incident. At the time of the accident, the temperature was 15 degrees, with the wind blowing five to 10 mph gusting to 20 mph. Overnight, the wind was sustained at twenty miles per hour, resulting in a minus-11-degree wind chill. Everything that was covered by water froze. Aerial operations were limited due to the water mist freezing on the booms and reels, and were eventually shut down. Hose lines were frozen to the ground and water had to be continually flowed to prevent the lines from freezing. Some of the five-inch hoselines were reduced to approximately three inches due to ice forming inside them.
Michelle Klein/Centre Daily Times
Chief Brian Burns of Citizen?s Hook & Ladder (Milesburg), the initial incident commander, directs operations as fires burn behind him.
Three city buses from the Centre Area Transportation Authority (CATA), located in State College, were used at the scene. Two buses were used for rehab and the third one was used to transport victims and stranded motorists to a truck stop in Milesburg.
The additional officials who responded to the scene included Centre County Commissioners Chris Exarachos, Steve Dershem and Scott Conklin. These officials were provided with turnout gear and given a tour of the accident scene. It helped boost the morale of the emergency personnel to see the commissioners in the ?trenches? with them. The Red Cross and Salvation Army provided hot food and beverages throughout the entire incident. Emergency personnel took their food to the rehab buses to eat and dress down.
The Centre County Mental Health Response Team (MHRT) responded with caseworkers to the Bellefonte EMS Station, where some responders were debriefed, and an additional eight MHRT personnel were available on-site. A number of the responders had follow-up meetings with the MHRT staff as part of the critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) that followed the incident.
Fourteen different chemicals in 55-gallon drums and packages of various sizes were in the tractor-trailer carrying the hazardous materials waste. These included hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, arsenic, methyl ethyl ketone, sodium bisulfite, methylpyrrolidone, dimethylformamide, perchloric acid, benzene, methyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, nitric acid, sodium chromate and methoxy propanol.
Water runoff containing hazardous chemicals flowed into Bald Eagle Creek and Sayers Lake, prompting state officials to warn the public not to fish in either waterway. Absorbent booms were placed in the creek in an effort to contain the chemicals in the runoff. The high flow rate of the creek, due to snow and rain, helped to dilute the runoff. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) officials were on the scene Tuesday and Wednesday to assess any environmental damage. A private environmental cleanup contractor identified areas of contaminated soil for later excavation and disposal.
Niki Desautels/Centre Daily Times
View from the eastbound lanes, looking east. Penn State?s Hazardous Materials Response Team is in the foreground.
Eight engines, 10 rescues, 12 tankers, two aerials, two hazmat vehicles, a CFR truck, the county command bus and an air support unit were used during the initial operations. Seventeen ALS and BLS units, two ALS intercept units and three helicopters also responded. Relief crews responded with five engines, eight rescues, five tankers, one aerial and three EMS units. Eighteen other agencies also responded.
During the incident, more than a dozen out-of-county departments were transferred to Centre County to cover protection districts. These departments ran several calls through out the county, including a working church fire, also in Boggs Township.
Two weeks after the incident, the Bellefonte Fire Department and Centre County Emergency Management Agency coordinated an after-action review (AAR). Forty agencies and over 100 personnel attended the review. Several agencies that were not involved in the incident, including the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, sent staff to learn how this incident was handled and to take ideas back to their agencies.
An accident of this magnitude may never occur again, but crashes involving multiple trucks and vehicles are common in this area. In fact, three others occurred during this past winter.
Jay K. Bradish/IFPA, Firehouse? news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.