On the Job – Wyoming: 36 Vehicles Involved in Accident on Interstate 80

It was unusually wet and foggy at milepost 332 on Interstate 80 in Wyoming on Aug. 19, 2004. Not one member of the Laramie Fire Department (LFD) was surprised when at 10:37 on that Thursday morning the primary ambulance (MS144) was dispatched to that area, 16 miles to the east, for a multi-vehicle collision.

Photo By Tim Chestnut
In a view facing east, an unidentified Wyoming Highway Patrol officer examines some of the wreckage from the massive accident.


Chief: Randy Vickers
PersonneL: 35 career firefighters, three sworn administrative positions
Apparatus: Four quads, one aerial, five ambulances, one wildland unit
Population: 32,000 year round, 45,000 during school year
Area: 2,400-square-mile fire response district, 4,400-square-mile EMS response district

What the firefighters didn’t know was that they were about to become involved in what has been described as the “largest incident ever handled in Wyoming.”

Interstate 80 cuts across the bottom half of Albany County and is included in the 2,400-square-mile fire and 4,400-square-mile EMS response area of the LFD. At 10:49, 10 minutes before MS144 arrived on scene, a call came in for Engine 4 – the first-run extrication unit – as dispatch was now receiving reports that several vehicles were on fire, with trapped occupants, and explosions could be heard coming from the area of the burning vehicles. While enroute, Engine 4 ordered that a sand truck and a 3,000-gallon city water tanker be dispatched.

When MS144 arrived at 10:59, Firefighter/EMT Kevin Lam took command and requested two additional ambulances from Laramie. Lam counted eight passenger vehicles, six tractor-trailer trucks and two motorcycles involved in the collision. Four of the passenger vehicles and all six of the tractor-trailers were involved in fire.

Firefighter/EMT Jeff Giustino was assigned triage. While performing triage, Giustino was notified by a bystander that a person was trapped in one of the tractors that was on fire. As he was locating an access point into the cab, Giustino noticed that a tow truck driver had hooked up to the tractor-trailer and was attempting to pull it away from the wreckage. Seeing that his action would have severely injured the trapped driver, Giustino stopped the tow truck driver and squeezed his six-foot, four-inch, 265-pound body into the flame-impinged cab, pulling the driver to safety. This action resulted in Giustino singeing his own hair and mustache. Lam continued with triage and accounted for 17 people who needed EMS transport. He then requested additional ambulance support to be dispatched from the city of Cheyenne, 29 miles east of the wreck.

Photo by Tim Chestnut
An uninjured victim watches a trailer burn.

Laramie Engine 4, a quad with a 1,000-gallon tank and a three-person crew, (Company Officer Ann Pond, Equipment Operator Chuck Hensala and Firefighter Matt Stroot) arrived on scene at 11:11. Upon arrival, the crewmembers of Engine 4 had a 180-degree view of the wreck: to the north they saw four passenger vehicles in the median fully involved in fire; directly in front of them on the interstate they could distinguish five tractors partially involved in fire and four trailers fully involved in fire, and to the south on the shoulder there was one passenger car damaged, but not on fire, and one damaged horse trailer with a propane tank attached.

Numerous Vehicles Involved

It was later determined five tractors, eight trailers and eight loads were involved in the fire along with the passenger vehicles. Conditions at this time were heavy fog, no wind or rain, heavy black and gray smoke and extensive flames. Contact was made with Giustino, who reported the trapped driver had been extricated and that he was unaware of any other trapped victims.

With only 1,000 gallons of water on scene, two 1¾-inch pre-connected handlines, one as an attack line and one as a backup, were pulled to attack from the west. Due to the amount of diesel fuel, motor oil and gasoline involved, Class B foam was used. A foam blanket was laid and a primary search for both victims and placards was done during the initial attack. An all-clear was given on both accounts. The initial strategy was to achieve knockdown and get an accurate count on the number of involved vehicles.

Photo by Tim Chestnut
West of the fire. This incident covered 1,370 feet of Interstate 80.

As Stroot attacked from the west, Pond made a quick assessment to the east and found two more passenger vehicles, damaged but not on fire, two more trailers damaged but not on fire, and two tractors and trailers fully involved in fire. Parked on the south shoulder about a quarter-mile to the east was an undamaged WIPP trailer carrying radiological waste. (The U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, in New Mexico is a storage facility for low-level and transuranic radioactive waste.) The WIPP trailer was parked awaiting “emergency operations clearance” from the U.S. Department of Transportation to continue traveling to Cheyenne with only one driver. Witnessing the wreck, the WIPP drivers had stopped their vehicle and assisted victims. One of the drivers suffered smoke inhalation and was transported by EMS.

Additional Personnel Arrive

Fifteen minutes into the incident, a member of a volunteer fire department from the next county was noticed walking around the scene. The incident commander made contact with him and found that personnel from Laramie County Fire Districts 1, 2 and 10, Warren Air Force Base and the National Guard had all arrived from the east. At this time, the scene was divided into two divisions, the Laramie County division (east) and the Laramie Fire division (west).

At 11:45, it was clear that trailers and tractors would need to be removed to reach the seat of the fire from the west. With Stroot coordinating, two trucks removed pieces of trailers and tractors off the pile. They were placed in the median to the northwest. This cleared an area so firefighters and law enforcement officials could try to get an accurate count on vehicles involved, and overhaul those that had been extinguished. Two front-end loaders were requested on scene. A 3,000-gallon tender arrived and an additional water source, a pond, was located a quarter-mile north of the incident.

Photo by Tim Chestnut
Flames consume a cab minutes after Firefighter Jeff Giustino pulled the driver to safety.

Photo by Tim Chestnut
Firefighter Matt Stroot coordinates the removal of trailers.

Photo by Tim Chestnut
An unidentified Wyoming Highway Patrol officer attempts to mark the location of vehicles as Company Officer Ann Pond and Firefighter Matt Stroot begin the initial attack.

By noon, all critical and serious patients had been transported to local hospitals. The MS144 crew had joined with Engine 4 crew, providing a five-person crew. LFD normally operates with four ALS ambulances; it had just taken delivery of two new ambulances and during this incident all six ambulances had been dispatched to this incident or to other EMS calls. A school bus was also requested to transport all non-injured victims.

Photo by Tim Chestnut
These vehicles were parked behind the first-due pumper, 100 feet west of the flames.

By 12:30 P.M., a “gross overhaul” effort was undertaken on both the Laramie County and the Laramie Fire sides. Two front-end loaders driven by Wyoming Highway Department personnel began breaking up and pushing the tractor-trailer remains onto the northeast median. As this effort was in progress, each front-end loader had one handline covering it and one handline extinguishing the wreckage as it was moved. Two additional handlines were covering the pile extinguishing spot fires uncovered by the overhaul. The cargo of the tractor trailers continued to burn and was identified as wine, milk, peaches, shoes, potatoes and cabbage, so water replaced Class B foam as the extinguishing agent of choice.

At 2 P.M., rehab facilities arrived courtesy of the Cheyenne Salvation Army, the Cheyenne Emergency Management Agency and the Wyoming Department of Homeland Security. LFD Shift Commander Bret Vance reported on scene with a replacement crew of two. Vance had been staged at the emergency operations center (EOC) located at the Laramie/Albany County Records and Communications Center. From there, all Albany County Sheriffs Office, Laramie Police Department and Laramie Fire Department personnel are dispatched. Call volume for an average 24-hour period is 450 telephone events and 800 radio events; between 10:30 A.M. and 3 P.M. on this day, it handled 668 radio events and 400 phone events. Vance was instrumental in helping with the additional workload this incident brought to dispatch as well as maintaining telephone contact with Pond.

The Wyoming Highway Patrol and the Albany County Sheriff’s Deputies had a report of one unoccupied vehicle under the burning tractor-trailers. Personnel involved in the gross overhaul looked for this passenger vehicle. At approximately 3 P.M., a passenger vehicle frame was found and a fine overhaul and evidence collection began at this time with law enforcement agencies leading the way with shovel and hands. During fine overhaul, human remains were found. While patrol officers and deputies shifted slowly through the debris pile looking for human remains and anything that could identify these people, previously removed debris was extinguished and overhauled by the LFD and Laramie County Fire District 1. A cadaver dog named “Moose” was brought in and allowed to search the pile. Moose indicated that more remains were located deeper in the pile. When fine overhaul didn’t result in any more remains, gross overhaul was started again. Fifteen minutes into this second gross overhaul, more human remains were found. (From this point until LFD terminated command at 1:45 A.M. the following day, fine and gross overhaul were alternated.) As night fell, Warren Air Force Base’s portable light towers became instrumental in helping with the overhaul. At 9 P.M., LFD Shift Commander Larry Bobango arrived to relieve Pond. Bobango released several of the engines from Laramie County Fire Districts 1, 2 and 10.

“This is a once-in-a-career call,” commented Stroot, “the one that you train for, the one that you work for, and everything came together today.”

Photo by Tim Chestnut
LFD Firefighters Jeff Giustino and Mike Hotchkiss and Company Officer John Poulos overhaul debris.

Photo by Tim Chestnut
Fine overhaul and evidence collection are underway at 6 P.M.

Photo by Tim Chestnut
Law enforcement officers shift through the debris pile looking for human remains and evidence while an unidentified firefighter stands ready with a handline.

Upon hearing that for the first 90 minutes the positions of incident commander and Engine 4 company officer were held by the same person, that the first-in firefighter went through four bottles of air before being relieved, and that the MS crew upon transferring care of their patients immediately engaged in firefighting tactics, LFD Chief Randy Vickers said, “We have always had to stretch our resources. Even I, with 30-plus years of emergency service, am astounded at what our people are capable of.”

The Final Tally

The vehicles on fire covered 100 feet and were a small part of the 1,370-foot incident that included 36 vehicles, 67 passengers, 17 people transported by EMS and seven fatalities. Responding agencies included the Laramie Fire Department, Laramie Street Department, Vedauwoo Volunteer Fire Department, Laramie County Fire Districts 1, 2 and 10, Wyoming Office of Homeland Security, Wyoming Emergency Management Agency, Cheyenne Fire Department, Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming Air Guard, AMR from Cheyenne, Albany County Sheriff’s Office, Wyoming Highway Patrol, Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation, the Albany County Attorney, the Albany County Coroner, Cheyenne Salvation Army, Cheyenne chapter of the American Red Cross and the Wyoming Highway Department.

Lessons learned are numerous as always with a multi-agency emergency incident:

  • Establish a visible command post and a visible secondary staging area.
  • Mutual aid agreements and mutual training opportunities between all involved fire agencies cuts down on confusion when a big incident occurs.
  • One radio frequency to which all responding agencies have access should be agreed on at the beginning of the incident.
  • Common and agreed-on terminology, sectors and divisions should be used from the beginning and throughout the incident.
  • In a large incident, scene control will become an issue.
  • If the incident has several different missions or is large in size or long in duration, roles in the incident command system could become less distinct over time.

Ann Benson Pond is an EMT in her 12th year with the Laramie, WY, Fire Department, serving the past five as a company officer. Pond has an undergraduate degree in administration of justice and is enrolled in the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program. She is a graduate of the Northern Colorado Southern Wyoming Professional Development of Company Officer (PDCO) program. Pond was the first-arriving company officer and incident commander for the first 10 hours of this incident.