A massive pileup, estimated to involve as many as 100 vehicles, caused a traffic nightmare along the icy Pennsylvania Turnpike just hours after a speed restriction was lifted Friday morning and that nightmare lasted until the road was reopened just before the afternoon rush.
“My heart was just like…oh my God. There’s no words to express it," said Maria Schoeler who was stuck directly behind a multi-vehicle wreck. "It’s pretty crazy. It’s something you don’t expect with this many vehicles. It’s pretty treacherous."
The first accident happened around 8:25 a.m., leaving five tractor-trailers and 10 cars tossed up in a mangled mess about a mile from the Bensalem interchange on the eastbound side of the toll road. A series of crashes occurred right after that and within minutes, wrecked vehicles stretched five miles back. The scene overhead looked like something out of a disaster movie. SkyForce10 photojournalist Jeremy Haas was the first to see the scene from that vantage point.
"It looked like multiple cars couldn't stop," said Haas.
Lisa Terreri and her husband were in a much more precarious place -- on the ground, behind the wheel, in the middle of it all.
"We just started seeing a lot of minor accidents, a lot of cars trying to brake but they couldn't brake in time, Terreri said. "We could see that the road had a lot of frozen ice on it." Terreri and her husband were able to stop, and wound up stuck between two of the crash scenes.
Tom Hilley from Downingtown was behind the wheel of another vehicle and not as fortunate. He hit another car.
"I ran into him. He ran into me. These trucks plowed into them. It was...bouncing around like a pinball machine out here," said Hilley.
A police report issued Friday evening confirms all three accounts of the scary incident:
"A preliminary investigation revealed that for unknown reasons several drivers lost control of their vehicles. These vehicles impacted with each other and came to a stop in the lanes. While stopped in the lanes, several other vehicles, including tractor trailers, were also unable to stop and impacted the already stopped vehicles. This caused a chain reaction of vehicles striking each other."
The multiple accidents left more than two dozen motorists injured and hundreds of people stranded along the stretch of road between the Willow Grove and Bensalem/U.S. 1 exits in the Feasterville-Trevose area of Bucks and Montgomery Counties. The eastbound side of the Turnpike was shut down and drivers were forced off at the Willow Grove exit. At times, the westbound side was closed too so that rescue crews could use the inner lanes to get the injured out and on their way to local hospitals including Temple and Abington Memorial.
"Angels were there," said Marge Brady, whose car was hit four times by other vehicles. Brady said she "will have nightmares for a long time. Brady, who is from Bensalem, hurt her back and neck in the accident and was rushed to Abington. "It's crazy this could happen."
The Turnpike was closed on the eastbound side until just before 4 p.m.
QUESTIONS RAISED ABOUT SPEED, ICE AND SUN GLARE
No one has nailed down what set off the series of accidents, but questions are being raised about speed, icy conditions and sun glare.
The speed limit on the Turnpike had been restricted to 45 miles an hour due to Nor’easter, which dumped more than a foot of snow in much of that area. But those speed restrictions were lifted this morning before the crashes.
The public information officer for the Turnpike Commission sent out this tweet just before 1 a.m.
With snow leaving PA by 4 a.m., the Turnpike plans to lift all speed and trailer restrictions today at 6 a.m. -- in time for a.m. rush.
— Carl DeFebo (@cdefebo) February 14, 2014
Pennsylvania State Police said that they believe that heavy winds, drifting snow and drivers traveling too close and too fast for the conditions could have played a role.
NBC10 First Alert Weather meteorologist Bill Henley said sun glare may have also been a contributing factor for drivers who were traveling directly towards the brilliant early morning sun.
"The other factor is, it happened shortly after sunrise and what most people don't realize is that just after sunrise is the coldest time of day," he said.
"So, what may have been unfrozen over night may very well have been refrozen at the time of this accident."
STRANDED FOR HOURS
The pileups left drivers and passengers stranded for hours. AAA urged motorists to turn off their vehicles to conserve fuel and limit battery usage.
Many motorists could be seen standing outside their cars using their cellphones. Some, like Dana Goodman, were headed to work, which ended up being a good thing in her case, for sustenance.
“I have provisions," said Dana Goodman who was headed to his job in Mount Holly. "I have my lunch here with me sitting in the car. I pack every day."
A massive towing process helped in re-opening the road.