New Jersey Truck Struck at Accident Scene

Oakland firefighters had trained for this: a major accident on Route 287 that would close the roadway and cause numerous injuries.

But a 48-vehicle accident in Wanaque on Friday night also claimed another casualty: a 1985 Mack fire engine struck by a tow truck on the slick roadway.

"As soon as I saw him coming, I got on the radio and told my guys to get out of the way," Oakland Fire Chief Peter Sondervan said of the tow truck.

Sondervan estimated the firetruck would cost $500,000 to replace, if that becomes necessary.

Icy conditions, distracted drivers and stormy weather were blamed by authorities for the pileup, which closed a 2-mile stretch of Route 287 for three hours Friday night.

Forty-eight vehicles, including three tractor-trailers, were involved in 24 separate crashes, and 17 people were injured and taken to Chilton Memorial Hospital in Pequannock, state police said.

The most seriously injured of the victims, a 10-year-old Morristown girl, suffered a skull fracture, police said. She was taken to Chilton and transferred to Morristown Memorial Hospital, said Tania Cutone, a nursing supervisor at Chilton. Eleven others were treated at Chilton and released, Cutone said. State police and the hospital could not explain the difference in the number of injured reported.

A Morristown Memorial spokeswoman, citing federal privacy laws, would not comment on the girl's condition.

The Wanaque River bridge on Route 287 iced over "very quickly" around 7 p.m. Friday, state police said in a prepared statement.

Then a northbound tractor-trailer jackknifed. A Volvo, with the Morristown girl inside, and another car collided with the truck, police said. The blocked lane set off a chain reaction on both sides of Route 287, police said.

The majority of the vehicles involved in the chain-reaction crash were on the northbound side, police said. But southbound drivers also were involved, possibly because they took their eyes off the road for a moment to look across the divider, said Sgt. Stephen Jones of the state police.

State troopers had to lean on vehicles that had crashed to support themselves as they moved around the accident site, Jones said.

"Troopers returning from the scene said that it was the worst icing conditions that they had ever seen," he said.

Eyewitnesses said the bridge was coated with a sheet of ice, sending cars and trucks spinning out of control.

"All you saw was cars going sideways," Greg Pace, 32, of Bloomingdale, said Friday night. "I saw tractor-trailers crushing cars like an accordion."

Pace, a driver for the Peapod online grocery service, was on his way back to the company's distribution center in Wanaque when the accident occurred. He said he was about 350 or 400 feet behind the pileup.

Keeping that stretch of the roadway clear was challenging, said Erin Phalon, a state Department of Transportation spokeswoman. Work crews spread salt and plow as often as the precipitation and temperatures warrant, she said.

But the elevation of the bridge, high winds and the fact that bridge decks freeze faster than roadways were challenges. She also said in an e-mail that rain washed away ice-melting chemicals while the bridge's pavement remained below freezing.

Emergency crews from Wanaque, Pompton Lakes, Oakland, Riverdale and Ringwood also had a tough time reaching motorists.

"There was no walking," said Sondervan, the Oakland fire chief. "It was all sliding."

State police said the ambulance carrying the Morristown girl was stuck on the shoulder until the road conditions improved.

Sondervan said he later saw a tow truck coming down the middle of Route 287 south. The driver hit the brakes, lost control and then struck the rear of the Oakland fire engine, the chief said.

The impact folded the rear tailboard and caused buckling on the passenger side, he said.

"Oh, it's definitely out of service," he said. "The truck will be out of service until it's fixed or inspected."

The 23-year-old fire engine was scheduled to be replaced next year, he said.

Sondervan said he would call the borough's insurance company Monday to determine whether the truck could be repaired or would have to be replaced.

He said the department would try to retrieve another fire engine being serviced in South Brunswick. In the meantime, Oakland may need to rely on neighboring departments for help, he said.

Despite the accident, he said his department was prepared.

"We've actually been waiting for it since [Route] 287 came through," he said, because the major roadway goes through Oakland. "This is actually the accident we've kind of been waiting for.

"Really, we've been lucky up to now that we haven't had something like this."

Staff Writers Mike Kerwick, William Lamb and Allison Pries contributed to this article.

Republished with permission from NorthJersey.com

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