When Shenango Township fire Chief Justin Barnes arrived at the scene of a multiple-car accident Tuesday afternoon on Interstate 80, he found three people “heavily entrapped’’ in two vehicles.
One of the entrapped people was in a tractor-trailer truck, while the other two were in an SUV, although appearances were deceptive with the latter vehicle.
When people began posting photos of the the SUV on social media, Barnes said people thought it was a Smart Fortwo, a European-manufactured two-seat, two-door subcompact car.
“It wasn’t,’’ Barnes said. “It got crushed so much it looked like a Smart car.’’
Multiple tools were needed to extract the three victims, he said.
The 12-vehicle accident, which took place at 3:32 p.m. Tuesday, closed both westbound lanes for about 90 minutes, state police said Friday morning, and snarled traffic for hours beyond that.
Four people were seriously injured in the accident, which involved 10 tractor-trailer trucks, the compacted SUV and a car. Police blamed the accident on poor visibility caused by heavy snow throughout the day Tuesday.
“The crash, response and resolution took place during periods of near white out conditions along Interstate 80, state route 62 and 318,” police reported.
Both westbound lanes of I-80 were closed until 5:03 a.m., stranding several people on the highway.
Police said the crash happened when a tractor-trailer hauling vitamins and nutritional supplements jackknifed across both westbound lanes. A second tractor-trailer, unable to avoid the first truck, hit it in the center, and split it in two, scattering the cargo across the interstate.
Chain reaction crashes continued in the poor-visibility conditions.
Three people were injured, including in one ejection that occurred as a tractor-trailer disintegrated upon hitting the stopped trailer.
Emergency responders used school buses to transport uninjured or slightly injured crash victims to the Park Inn by Radisson hotel in Shenango Township.
“Efforts were made by PSP and local fire departments to check on motorists stranded in the backlog throughout the closure,” state police reported. “One medical emergency in the backlog was cleared by West Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department with the use of ATVs.”
While clearing the backlog, responders discovered a Greyhound bus had become disabled in a travel lane with frozen brake lines, which extended the highway closure while a second school bus and additional heavy wreckers were called in to transport approximately 20 passengers to the Interstate 376 interchange (Exit 4) and to remove the bus.
Multiple heavy wrecker services front-end loaders and dump trucks were used to clear the highway, state police said.
State police were assisted by PennDOT, the county Emergency Management Agency, the Shenango Township Police Department and multiple fire and ambulance services.
Fire departments from Hermitage, West Middlesex, Patagonia and Mercer East End assisted Shenango Township Volunteer Fire Department, with New Wilmington and Pulaski, Sharpsville, Farrell and Sharon fire departments placed on standby, Barnes said.
About 35 people attached to emergency response teams aided in the accident, he said.
To handle the situation on I-80, Frank Jannetti, Mercer County Public Safety director, said he activated the county’s mass casualty plan.
“Initially, it looked worse than it was,’’ Jannetti said.
Details of the plan include coordinating with area hospitals, to see how many beds are available, and calling ambulance services to gauge the number of emergency vehicles they could muster.
Jannetti complimented his staff on how they handled the situation.
“They were outstanding,’’ he said.
Getting emergency responders to the accident site posed unprecedented challenges.
“We had to change their routes several times because there were roads blocked off,’’ Jannetti said. “We had to get creative in how we responded to calls. This is the first time we had difficulties in getting them to an accident.’’
At one point, crews from Mercer East End Fire Department had to hike 45 minutes, carrying their gear the whole time, Barnes said.
“We were able to get a truck to them that took them to the accident,’’ he said.
While the I-80 accident pileup demanded a heavy need for emergency responders, there were a huge number of motorists elsewhere in need of aid, Jannetti said. He called in a couple of extra 911 dispatchers to handle the heavy load.
“Over a 9-hour period starting 3 p.m. Tuesday we received 293 calls,’’ Jannetti said. “That’s not the number of calls we received, that’s the actual number of incidents we handled. In a typical 24-hour day we get around 100.’’
Not including the I-80 pileup, Jannetti said 911 fielded calls for 75 vehicle accidents with no injuries along with 24 disabled vehicles during the 3 p.m. to midnight period. Disabled vehicles include such incidents as cars getting stuck on a snowy hillside and those sliding off the road.
“It was busy all over the county and not just I-80,’’ Jannetti said. “And we got a huge number of medical calls as well.’’
Many responders handling the I-80 pileup logged in eight hours at the scene. But that’s all in the line of duty, Barnes said.
“That’s what we train for,’’ he said. No injuries were reported among responders, he added.
He thanked O’Neill Coffee in West Middlesex for providing crews with beverages and sandwiches, and Sheetz in Hermitage for donating cookies.
Considering the number of vehicles involved, the accident’s human toll could have been much worse, Barnes said.
“We got very lucky,’’ he said.