BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (WOOD) — Massive pileups involving nearly 200 vehicles closed a portion of I-94 west of Battle Creek for about 43 hours.
Around 9:20 a.m. Friday, whiteout conditions on the highway between exits 88 and 92 (Galesburg and Climax) contributed to wrecks in both the east and westbound lanes involving an estimated 193 vehicles. One person was killed and 22 more hospitalized, Michigan State Police said.
The person killed has been identified by MSP as Jean Larocque, a 57-year-old truck driver from Saint-Chrysostome, Quebec in Canada.
Westbound lanes reopened Saturday night, but eastbound lanes remained closed as semis were cleared and the Michigan Department of Transportation checked the road. In a news release around 4:30 a.m. Sunday, MSP said MDOT had inspected both the westbound and eastbound lanes of I-94 and determined they was safe for vehicle traffic.
In the eastbound lanes, 26 semis and 34 cars were involved in the pileup. In the westbound lanes, 50 semis and 83 cars wrecked. That’s a total of 76 semis and 117 passenger vehicles.
One of the semi-trucks was carrying 44,000 pounds of formic acid, a hazardous material. Another was full of fireworks.
One of the pileups caused a fire that spread to multiple vehicles in the center of the crash. Among the vehicles that caught fire was the truck carrying fireworks. Video sent in to 24 Hour News 8 by viewers shows the fireworks exploding with whizzes and crashes reminiscent of Independence Day and smoke rising.
The hazardous material was one reason it took crews so long to reopen the highway. Cold weather hampered the removal of the material and delayed the reopening of the road. While the cleanup continued, hazmat crews are continuously checking the air quality to make sure no chemicals have been released into the air. The cold weather did help to stabilize some hazardous material contained in the damaged tanker.
Metro Transit’s transportation director, Sean McBride, told 24 Hour News 8 on Friday that buses were sent to the scene to help keep stranded passengers and emergency workers warm. They also transported people Galesburg-Augusta Primary School, where the Red Cross set up a respite location and shelter for first responders and displaced motorists. Warm meals were provided and mental health support was available. The shelter stayed open overnight.
Borgess Hospital told 24 Hour News 8 it treated at least six patients who were injured in the crashes. A hospital spokesperson told 24 Hour News 8 one of those patients was in serious condition and the five others were in fair condition. Bronson Healthcare facilities in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek also treated at least 10 patients.
Initially, emergency responders believed around 90 vehicles were involved in the crashes. That number then grew to an estimated 115 and again to an estimated 150 before MSP had a closer count of 123 around 2:45 p.m. Friday. Friday evening, that number was updated to 193.
“Response to this event required a massive coordinated effort between state, local, and private entities. All response partners will be meeting in the very near future to debrief this incident, develop an after-action report, and compile lessons learned to better serve the community,” MSP said in the Sunday release.
Authorities said eastbound I-94 at mile marker 90 sustained some minor pitting in the cement from vehicle fires. While the highway is open, the pitting in the roadway will cause the surface to be rough, according to MSP. Crews are posting signs to warn drivers.
State police are stressing driving with caution as they travel on winter roadways to help avoid similar wrecks.
“We cannot stress enough for people to drive with caution as they travel on winter roadways. Slower speeds and more distance is needed to respond to situations that may occur in front of drivers. Please drive careful and arrive safely at your destination,” the release said.
In a separate incident, eastbound I-94 at Sprinkle Road in Kalamazoo was closed due to a crash for a time, according to MDOT. In a third incident, westbound I-94 at M-37 (Columbia Ave) Exit 92 was closed due to a crash, per Calhoun County Dispatch. Both crashes have since cleared.