<H1 class=stry_pg_hdln>'I braked like crazy but there was just no way to stop'</H1>
<SPAN class=authr_eml>Samara Kalk Derby </SPAN> — <SPAN class=stry_tm>1/07/2008 7:20 am</SPAN>
Rosemarie Dietz Slavenas was in the middle of one of a series of multi-vehicle accidents on Interstate 39-90 in southeast Madison Sunday that involved more than 100 vehicles.
Her Ford Focus was totaled and undriveable and she sat on the road for at least four hours before a Metro Transit bus took her to the nearby Wingate Hotel.
"You can replace a car," Dietz Slavenas said. "I'm not upset. Once it's over there is no point in being upset about it. I feel like I am very lucky."
Law enforcement officials are saying fog was a factor in the massive pileup at about 2:30 p.m. and resulted in two fatalities, three other life-threatening injuries and 50 people being transported to local hospitals. The interstate was closed for 5 miles in both directions for eight hours Sunday, from the Badger Interchange -- the interstate's intersection with U.S. 12-18 -- south to County N near Stoughton.
Lt. Lauri Steeber of the State Patrol called it a tangled mess late Sunday night as officers were still trying to get vehicles cleared.
"What I want to emphasize over and over again is that you need to slow down," she said at a 10 p.m. press conference. The crashes were weather related, but drivers need to remember that the posted speed limit -- 65 mph on that stretch of interstate -- is an unrealistic guideline under unusual weather conditions, Steeber said.
"We have a lot of different weather situations here in Wisconsin. We had heavy fog that caused people to slow down but we have some estimates on speeds of people who were coming into the fog in the 70s," she said.
Drivers going too fast were coming into contact with vehicles that were slowing down because they were hitting a wall of fog and couldn't see ahead of them, Steeber said.
"I can't emphasize enough that you have to be aware of your surroundings and be prepared to slow down. Don't follow people too closely," she said.
Dietz Slavenas was on her way from Rockford to her mother's house in Madison. She said she was coming out of some fog but didn't have any problems seeing. She said she wasn't going more than 50 mph.
"I braked like crazy but there was just no way to stop," she said. Dietz Slavenas hit two cars in front of her. There were cars and trucks all over the road, some piled up and some separate, she said. She didn't see anybody injured.
"Most people were very nice and very calm," she said, adding that someone was handing out Christmas cookies. "You run into the nicest people in Wisconsin. I love Wisconsin."
Town of Blooming Grove Assistant Fire Chief Jay Salvo admitted that it's a cliche, but he said it looked like a bomb went off.
"There was a lot of heavy damage. A lot of people roaming around. They were trying to get away from the interstate," he said.
Many people, injured or just stuck, left their vehicles and tried to flee the carnage by walking into fields and medians, sometimes walking in waist deep snowbanks, Salvo said.
"They were scared. They kept hearing these crashes in the fog and didn't want to get injured. That's why they left their cars," he said.
One of the first scenes he came upon were two vehicles T-boned into a semi-trailer. A number of people waved the fire trucks down and alerted them to a car that was severely damaged and contained one of the fatalities. It was in a ditch by itself with other vehicles around it, he said.
Officials have not released the names of the dead.
Meteorologist Marc Kavinsky of the National Weather Service said dense fog developed Saturday evening and lingered all night, through the morning and into the afternoon Sunday. The airport at Truax Field was reporting visibilities of an eighth of a mile in dense fog at 2 p.m.
Visibility started to gradually improve between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., after the accident, he said.
Madison Fire Department spokesman Eric Dahl said four fire units and a least three ambulances from the department responded and were just a fraction of the vehicles on the scene. They helped with recovery efforts and providing lighting. Many of the ambulances took more than one patient, he said.
Emergency workers had to check each vehicle, even the ones that weren't in accidents, to see if anyone inside needed help.
Although multi-vehicle pileups happen from time to time, Dahl said Sunday's was the largest he's seen.
Seven people were taken to Stoughton Hospital, 25 to St. Mary's Hospital, eight to UW Hospital, and 10 to Meriter Hospital, according to the State Patrol's Steeber, and confirmed by representatives of each hospital.
Four city buses were employed throughout the evening transporting more than 150 people to the Wingate Inn, 3510 Millpond Road. Late Sunday, Madison Metro buses returned people who have been released from the hospitals to the Wingate, where they either got rooms or reunited with their families.
The State Patrol was hoping to have at least one lane open in each direction by 10:30 p.m. Sunday.
"When I left the scene we were still trying to get what I refer to as 'innocent bystanders who were caught up in the mess of crashes out there,' trying to get them cleared out of the area," Steeber said.
There were several different crash scenes, Steeber said. The two major ones were at the 143 and 146 mile markers. There were numerous crashes in between, she said.
The crash at mile marker 143 involved 26 vehicles and the crash at mile marker 146 involved 14 or 15 vehicles, she said.
"It's hard to tell if they are chain reaction events or separate crashes. It's multiple scenes and we will be sorting that out for a while," Steeber said.
In a statement, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz called Sunday's pileups a terrible tragedy.
"Our thoughts are with the victims and their families. I am grateful for the bravery and professionalism of our first responders and other city workers who answered the call to help those in need," he said.
Lois Sater, a spokeswoman for the Badger Chapter of the Red Cross said the agency was helping victims who weren't injured but just stuck. They needed food, assistance in locating relatives and a safe place to stay for the night. And they came in by the busload.
She said she encountered a range of emotions as people checked into the hotel or waited for family to pick them up.
"The hardest part is that they have been sitting out on the highway for hours. They've been sitting in their cars. Some of them weren't damaged but they just couldn't go anywhere," Sater said.
The Red Cross collected the names of everyone affected by the accidents so that family members have a place to call for information (233-9300).
The agency had assisted between 80 and 100 people by late Sunday, she said.
Culver's, a disaster partner with the Red Cross, provided hamburgers, custard and other food for people while they waited. The restaurant chain also helped feed emergency workers.
The seriously injured were brought to UW Hospital. According to spokeswoman Lisa Brunette, eight people were brought there. One was critical and seven were listed as serious as of 6:30 p.m. when she left.
As of 9:30 p.m., 20 people had been through St. Mary's emergency room, all with minor injuries. All were discharged, said hospital spokesperson Steve Van Dinter.
Meriter Hospital spokeswoman Mae Knowles said 10 people came in from the initial accident scene and two came in later after realizing that they were hurt. At 9 p.m. the hospital got word that eight others were on their way over from the Wingate.
"If there is a silver lining in this it is that it happened at shift change time. So that we had the day shift on call and they hadn't left the hospital yet so everybody just stayed in place until they understood what was going on," she said.
Most of the injuries were minor and she expected that most of the patients would be discharged.
Dietz Slavenas of Rockford, a retired professor, is without a car but was just counting herself lucky that she was not among the injured Sunday night.
"I've got two hands, two feet, two eyes. No broken neck, no broken back. Who needs a car? People lived without them for a million years."