NJDOT Reviewing Crash Involving 40 Vehicles on NJ Turnpike

CRANBURY, NJ–The fallout continues from the New Jersey Turnpike's multiple simultaneous pileups on February 9. 

The day after the crashes, the state transportation commissioner and Turnpike Authority chairman, Jamie Fox, ordered a review of the incidents.

The review is examining the factors that caused the mega-crashes, including execution of the Turnpike Authority's winter weather plan, the signs that were posted, vehicle speed, the time that speed limits were lowered, and road conditions.  

The investigation, according to Turnpike Authority spokesperson Tom Feeney, is to be completed within a month of the incidents. 

Before each winter storm, groups of snowplows can be seen at salt depots, or by Turnpike exits, often lit up and ready to go. 

Forty vehicles were involved in the crash, including a bus, two tractor trailers, some box trucks, and several cars.

Damage to the Turnpike itself consists of bent and torn railings. at several points, on either side of the roadway, as shown in Star-Ledger and State News Service photos.

The mega-crashes occurred at 9:11 PM in the vicinity of Milepost 71.4. Both the inner and outer southbound routes were affected, forcing the entire highway to be closed.

As we reported, there was one fatality.  The person killed was a Bordentown man, Darryl C. Williams, who had been driving a Toyota Corolla when he was trapped and crushed inside.

Wiliams'car was caught in a chain-reaction crash, after it struck the rear of two tractor trailers, and was pinned by a Jeep and a box truck. 

Williams' death came just days after being inducted into the Bordentown Regional High School Athletic Hall of Fame.

A scholarship fund, in his memory, was started on GiveForward.com, raising more than the $10,000 it had anticipated.  As of February 17, it had 165 backers.

According to an initial investigation, two enormous tractor-trailer trucks tried to avoid a number of cars that had crashed after slipping on the ice.  The trucks then skidded and lost control, and other vehicles slammed into the trucks. 

Around 21 vehicles were in the cars-only lanes' pileup, while the largest crash in the outer lanes involved 13 vehicles. Other collisions damaged six more vehicles. 

There was some confusion as to which hospital victims would be taken to, with one ambulance bus headed to Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick, and others towards Princeton Medical Center at Plainsboro and Trenton's Capital Health Regional Medical Center.

One injured person was trapped inside a bus, and needed to be cut out, at the same time that the car fire was raging, said the Chief of the Hightstown Engine Company Number 1.

The fire departments of Hightstown, Cranbury, and Monroe all worked on the crash scene, which was reportedly cleared by 4 am on the morning of February 10.

The car lanes (inner roadway) were reopened at 3 am and the truck lanes (outer roadway) were opened after 8 am. 

Cranbury police issued a Nixle emergency alert the night of the accident, warning about the icy traveling conditions. 

There was at least one burning car during the pileups.  Another vehicle landed on its roof.

The fire chief of Hightstown's Engine Company No. 1, Scott Jenkins, said, "It was like a scene from a movie, with one vehicle overturned, another on fire, jackknifed trucks, and car wrecks, spread all over the roadway… It was a mess." 

As we reported, fifteen people were taken to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, while 23 went to its sister hospital in Hamilton.

Capital Health, in Trenton, recieved 25, and the new hospital in Plainsboro took in five injured persons. 

Monroe Township's Basic Life Support handled the triage, which was set up "right away," according to Jenkins.

Monroe Township's ambulances handled on-the-spot first aid.  According to Township Business Administrator Wayne Hamilton, "there were three Monroe Township [ambulances] and one supervisor vehicle on the scene."

The county handled much of the patient transportation, sending two buses: a Medical Ambulance Bus and an EVAC bus.

The ambulance bus is owned by the state's EMS Task Force, and can hold up to 22 medical patients at a time.

The EVAC bus can seat 28 people without wheelchairs or 12-14 people with wheelchairs. Together, those two buses could hold up to 50 of the 75 injured people in one trip. 

Middlesex County Freeholder H. James Polos had been traveling northbound on the Turnpike at the time, and he found the Turnpike slippery and his four-wheel-drive vehicle having trouble staying on course.

He claimed that a 65 mph speed limit was posted and that signs warned about "winter weather conditions," but not black ice. He did not see trucks spreading salt on the roadway.

Polos is the chairman of Middlesex County's public safety and health committee, and he is a former first-aid squad captain.  Polos lives in Highland Park, where he once served as Mayor, and was driving home from Cherry Hill.

Tom Feeney, the Turnpike Authority's spokesperson, asserts that the maintenance district that took care of that part of the Turnpike was completely staffed and fully engaged, running salt spreading trucks throughout the day, including at the time of the accidents.

Turnpike employees, rather than contractors, were responsible for treating the roadway, Feeney said.

The Turnpike Authority had planned to hire 21 new maintenance workers to handle the expansion of the Turnpike near the Molly Pitcher Service Area, but only 15 positions had been filled at the time of the pileups. Thus, there were 15 plows and salt spreaders on that part of the road at the time, according to Feeney.

Freeholder Polos said that he had "slowed down" and "didn't have a comfort level of traction" just before he noticed a fire in the southbound car lane and pulled over.

Polos got out of his vehicle, and found that the shoulder was slippery from black ice, before noticing that a car was on fire. 

Polos said he got a flashlight out of his pickup truck and tried to use it to warn northbound drivers to slow down. Climbing over barriers and railings, he says he noticed that some of those involved in the crash had already called 911.

He also saw distracted people wandering around. 

Polos also took his fire extinugisher and tried to douse the inferno, he said, but that it did not put out the fire.

Polos described the chaotic scene to the Home News Tribune, including a minivan on its side, whose driver had to escape via the sunroof, a crashed tour bus, and various people in their cars, whom he helped out.  One of them had a broken arm.

Polos said he helped people off the tour bus,  something that happened before the "first responders" arrived. 

Polos agrees with Commissioner Fox's decision to investigate the crashes, saying, "the Turnpike Authority is always very responsive when it comes to dealing with salting and clearing the Turnpike."