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Firefighters and EMS responders dispatched to a report of a one-car accident on an icy Wisconsin highway arrived to find something much worse: a chain-reaction accident involving two tractor-trailer trucks, one straight truck and two vans. Seven of the 13 people involved in the accident had been killed; an eighth victim would later die in a hospital. Three other people were injured.
The incident proved the benefits of training, a smoothly functioning incident management system and close cooperation among numerous mutual aid agencies. It was the second-worst motor vehicle accident in Wisconsin history; nine people were killed in a 1937 crash in Manitowoc County. Two accidents in 1940, one in Mani-towoc and another in Richland County, also each claimed eight lives.
How It Happened
The morning of Feb. 12, 1997, found Washington County, WI, highway crews plowing the snow nature had left behind. At 5:53 A.M., the Slinger Fire Department and Dick's Ambulance Service were paged to a reported single-car rollover accident with one person trapped on Highway 41, just north of Slinger. Within minutes, the command vehicle left the station with Captain Daryl Otte, Lieutenant Greg Bayer and Firefighter/EMT Rod Hansen. Road conditions forced the driver to use four-wheel-drive on the way to the scene.
Photo courtesy of Slinger Fire Department
The chain-reaction accident involved two tractor-trailer trucks, one straight truck and two vans.
Upon arrival, the three firefighters were surprised by what they found. Instead of a single car, the accident involved two tractor-trailers, one straight truck and two vans and covered a stretch of highway at least 250 yards long. Otte assumed command and split Bayer to left scene command and Hansen to right scene command.
Bayer checked the straight truck, one van and a tractor-trailer truck 250 yards up the highway. The only person in the van was the driver, who was unhurt. The driver of the straight truck, its only occupant, complained of a sore knee but refused assistance. The driver of the tractor-trailer was pinned in his vehicle. He complained of shoulder pain but was alert and oriented. Bayer was in constant radio communication with command, which asked the Allenton Volunteer Fire Department to respond and extricate and care for that driver. When Allenton units arrived, they relieved Bayer and assumed north scene command. Bayer then returned to the main scene.
In the meantime, Hansen found the driver of the other tractor-trailer sitting inside the truck. He complained of a laceration to his head. Hansen then inspected the van. Inside the van one patient was alert and oriented. Hansen asked how many people were in the van. Nine, the patient replied.
Hansen grabbed a flashlight, looked inside and said, "Oh my God!" Eight people were pinned in an area measuring about two feet by four feet. At least three were obviously deceased. Hansen requested additional ambulances and the Flight-for-Life helicopter. Command called for first responders from the St. Lawrence Fire Department and ambulances from the Hartford Rescue Squad, Richfield Fire Department, West Bend Fire Department and Jackson Fire Department, along with Flight-for-Life and an engine company and a command vehicle from Jackson.
Hansen ran up to the first-in Engine Company and requested any available emergency medical technicians (EMTs). The Slinger Fire Department does not run a rescue service but has firefighters who are trained as EMTs. The fire department frequently trains with Dick's Ambulance Service, a private operator that holds the village's 911 contract. Firefighter/ EMT Brad Schaefer was assigned to patient care with Hansen. They both went inside the van to treat the highest-priority patients. Chief Robert Schaefer was the officer on the engine company/ hydraulic rescue tool truck. He immediately established a hoseline for fire protection and an extrication crew, of which he took charge.
Photo courtesy of Slinger Fire Department
One of the tractor-trailer trucks ended up 250 yards from the other vehicles.