Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Anatomy of a response - I-5 at Mounts Rd

 by Claudia Bingham Baker

The tragic collision that took place on Monday, Dec. 16 on southbound Interstate 5 at Mounts Road reminds us all how fragile life is and how the status quo can change in an instant. Loss of life, injuries and property damage were the immediate results of yesterday’s collision. But the effects only started there. Most importantly, of course, were the victims, whose lives were irrevocably altered. First responders then came upon a complicated and dangerous scene. With a road strewn with debris and multiple fires burning, it was clear southbound I-5 had to close.

Thousands of motorists got caught in miles-long backups, and even people in surrounding communities were affected as they experienced floods of traffic trying to bypass the clogged highway.

It’s not often that a collision is severe enough to close an interstate for hours. Yesterday’s was. We are taking this opportunity to help explain our role in highway collisions.

Just after 10 a.m. the collision was reported. Several agencies, WSDOT included, began the simultaneous process of responding. The Washington State Patrol dispatched troopers, local fire stations dispatched fire engines and medic units, and we dispatched Incident Response crews. We also began alerting motorists via social media channels and variable-message-signs, which are the large electronic signs that span the highways and give information. Our closed-circuit TV cameras gave media and the public a first-hand look at the carnage on a freeway that had essentially closed itself from the widespread debris field and active vehicle fires. We sent highway advisories and posted the closure on our website.

Within 15 minutes of the reported collision, we had set up a detour for one lane of southbound I-5 traffic via the Mounts Road exit. Variable-message-signs as far north as the King County line and as far south as Tumwater warned motorists to avoid the area.

In responding to roadway collisions, our immediate role is to support the first responders while they care for the injured and take control of the scene. We do that by notifying the public of traffic impacts, creating detours and diverting traffic from the scene. During this incident, we performed that role while fire units extinguished the fires, Ecology responded to a fuel spill, the Washington State Patrol investigated the incident, and the deceased’s body was removed from the scene by the Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office.

We were able to open one southbound lane to traffic two hours after the incident occurred. As the day progressed, we performed as much concurrent roadway clean-up as we could, but we were unable to remove the burned semi until cleared by the responding authorities to do so.

The removal of the burned-out semi proved to be extremely difficult. The trailer was full of heavy steel. The shell, and thus the structural integrity, of the trailer was decimated by the fire. The steel cargo had to be unloaded before the trailer could be moved. Once emptied, crews used heavy equipment to start pushing the trailer onto the shoulder, but the friction reignited a fire. With the fire risk that high, crews chose to instead to remove the trailer by loading it onto a lowboy. Even then, the shell was very unstable and removal was approached deliberately and carefully to keep the trailer intact. Once the trailer was finally removed, crews cleaned and re-opened the road.

Because the road is built out of concrete pavement, rather than asphalt, the intense vehicle fires did not damage the roadway, therefore no pavement repairs were necessary.

The Dec. 16 collision at Mounts Road in Pierce County was about as difficult as highway collisions can get. It combined the challenges of multiple re-igniting fires, injuries, a fatality, tremendous amounts of debris, fuel spills, commercial and passenger vehicles, limited alternate routes, and difficult extractions from the freeway. We are sympathetic to those of you who were caught in the traffic backup. We know that while sitting in traffic, you missed important meetings and family gatherings, ran out of gas, had medical concerns and other misadventures during that very long day.

Some of you have asked us if this collision scene could have been cleared more quickly. In evaluating an event this size, the agencies involved will meet to debrief and evaluate the anatomy of the response with exactly that question in mind. Our goal is to always improve our service to the public. We will look for lessons we can apply toward that next response.

13 comments:

Mark Clemens, EMD said...

Great job of reportage. I was hoping someone would do an in-depth account like this. Thanks Ms. Bingham-Baker, and thanks to WSDOT, WSP and all the other agencies that dealt with this scene for more than 12 hours...

Brenda said...

Thank you for this description. It took me 8 hours to get from WA518 to Mounts Road, and knowing it aaas a fatality accident, I had lots of time to be grateful for being alive to experience the traffic jam. It also gave me time to wonder if an additional lane couldn't have been opened sooner. I know that the intricacies of removal of an accident of this magnitude probably involves far more than any "lay person" would realize, but I couldn't help but wonder. I began to fear for others who may be experiencing medical emergencies themselves, finding they were on the road for hours instead of minutes. In the analysis, I hope there is consideration of the risk-vs-benefit to keeping roads closed, with the risks including the health of the motorists who didn't anticipate needing to wait that long before eating/receiving a regularly scheduled drug/etc. Thankfully, I was fine.

Kristi Finney said...

As the mother of a son killed in a collision (nothing at all like this one, though), I want to thank every person in every agency involved for their efforts. My heart goes out to the families whose lives are forever changed but also to the people who have chosen to help and who carry images of what they see, smell, hear, and feel with them even off duty and probably forever.

Cathryn Lewis said...

Thank you for your report, very informative. I did have a friend with a fragile infant that ran out of oxygen and yet another emergency team came to the rescue. You do not do glamorous work and we all complain about you but we are still grateful for all of it. Thanks

ronmcl said...

Excellent critique. Thanks for the in-depth update.
As a retired first responder (fire), I appreciated the additional info along with a lot of the on-scene photos and videos.

Anonymous said...

This answered my concern. It only enhances the perils of driving on a busy freeway. Just because every one is going in the same direction divided by a median for traffic going the opposite direction, does not necessarily mean you are safe. Example this accident.

Anonymous said...

This answered my concern. It only enhances the perils of driving on a busy freeway. Just because every one is going in the same direction divided by a median for traffic going the opposite direction, does not necessarily mean you are safe. Example this accident.

Ritz Duchesne said...

I was stuck in the traffic on I 5 for 5 hours. I was hauling a horse trailer with 2 miniature donkeys aboard. I was impressed when I saw 2 soldiers scramble from their car to help a motorist who ran out of gas to move the car to the side of the road. At one point, the driver in the car in front of me tossed 2 Diet Cokes to the folks in the truck next to him. It's nice to see folks help each other. It was frustrating but I had a good book on CD in my car and a full tank of fuel for my truck!

Ritz Duchesne said...

I was stuck in the traffic on I 5 for 5 hours. I was hauling a horse trailer with 2 miniature donkeys aboard. I was impressed when I saw 2 soldiers scramble from their car to help a motorist who ran out of gas to move the car to the side of the road. At one point, the driver in the car in front of me tossed 2 Diet Cokes to the folks in the truck next to him. It's nice to see folks help each other. It was frustrating but I had a good book on CD in my car and a full tank of fuel for my truck!

Anonymous said...

I first want to send my condolences to the family who lost their loved one.
I did not realize the magnitude of this accident until my husband came home around 11 pm after sitting in traffic for over 3 hours. Which is a minor convenience compared to what could happen. I-5 is a main highway that is used by thousands of people everyday. I understand that this does not happen every day but when do we address other commuting options? Something along the lines of BART which has proved beneficial in the San Francisco and surrounding areas

Rhonda said...

I first want to send my condolences to the family who lost their loved one.
I did not realize the magnitude of this accident until my husband came home around 11 pm after sitting in traffic for over 3 hours. Which is a minor convenience compared to what could happen. I-5 is a main highway that is used by thousands of people everyday. I understand that this does not happen every day but when do we address other commuting options? Something along the lines of BART which has proved beneficial in the San Francisco and surrounding areas

Anonymous said...

It would be nice if a text message to 253 and 360 area phones could have been placed when it was apparent that south bound traffic on I-5 would be a problem for most of the day. Many people commute between Olympia and Tacoma for work, and most of us had no idea about the conditions on the road until we left work. And with the tight squeeze of roadways caused by JBLM, and no alert signs from the Tacoma curve to Olympia, it was a nightmare. There must be something to be learned about this horrible incident.

In addition, I think the military needs to think about how the JBLM causes such a huge hang up in traffic going both North and South. How can they bring in additional personal, squadrons without mitigation of traffic?

I appreciate the information about this accident, but you all knew it was coming someday, especially with the no barrier status on a small section of I-5 below Mounts Rd that was crossed by a motorist and went into Southbound traffic, causing such an unfortunate death that did not need to occur.

When I passed the area at 8.30pm, over 10 hours later, there were an additional 2 lanes that were clear, but still closed. More personal from the WSDOT and WSP, could have opened things up earlier. I appreciate your transparent review of the response and Operations on the ground.

I would like to hear from WSDOT and the military at JBLM about the changes they plan for the future because of this incident.

stevenorton@mac.com

civil litigation solicitors burnley said...

Because the road is built out of concrete pavement, rather than asphalt, the intense vehicle fires did not damage the roadway