Three dead after six vehicle accident shuts down I-35 in Waco

WACO, Texas (KWTX) Three people have died following a massive, six-vehicle accident on Interstate 35 in Waco, underneath the Valley Mills Drive overpass.

(Photo by Randy Davis)

Waco Police Sergeant Patrick Swanton tells KWTX, four semis and two passenger cars were involved in the fatal crash. Swanton confirmed, three people, a male truck driver, and a woman a child (possibly a pre-teen) in one of the passenger vehicles, are dead. Officers said five others, three truck drivers, and two males who were in the other passenger vehicle, did survive.

The names of the victims have not yet been released. “Because of the velocity of the vehicles hitting together…the car is too mangled to determine who they are,” Swanton said about an hour-and-a-half after the crash. A Waco firefighter had to be rushed to the hospital for heat-related injuries during the battle but was expected to be ‘ok.’

The southbound lanes of I-35 reopened before 5 p.m. The northbound lanes through Waco, from Robinson to Bellmead, reopened at 1a.m. Waco’s police and fire crews were out working another wreck further north on the interstate when they got dispatched to the crash around 2:15 p.m.

“We responded immediately,” said Waco Fire Battalion Chief, Chris Pechacek. “Some of the guys that were at the wreck north of here saw the smoke, just left that scene and responded here, got here very, very quickly, reported heavy, heavy fire, reported black smoke conditions, almost impossible for anyone to survive.” Law enforcement and emergency crews from around the county came to help. “We are blessed in Waco to have that kind of response,” said Swanton.
“We’ve seen it time and time again, when we have a significant, major incident, Waco is not left unprotected.”

One of the main agencies responding was the Waco Fire Department, which sent 13 units, about forty staff, to the scene. Pechacek said a response like that was almost unheard of, but the magnitude of the situation dictated it. “I’ll tell ya what, it was a bad wreck,” said Pechacek.

The Texas Department of Transportation has determined the overpass leading traffic from S. Valley Mills Drive onto the northbound lanes of I-35 was structurally damaged by flames. Police said officials reopened the overpass at first, but softball-to-basketball-sized chunks of concrete fell as cars drove over it, so it was closed a second time.

“We’re very lucky no one was hurt,” said Swanton. Officials will conduct additional inspections. Harry Turner, a driver of one of the semis involved, explained his version of what happened.

“I was looking out the mirror and I heard (a noise), it hit the other two cars behind me, and he (the truck driver behind him) slammed both of those cars into my trailer,” said Turner. “Everyone else was was slowing down.” Turner said it happened so fast, it was hard to react.

“My trailer got on fire and I had to jump out,” said Turner. “When I opened my door and got out of the tractor, I seen my tractor was bent like this, and the end of it was on fire with two cars up under it.” Turner, who lives in Shreveport, Louisiana but works for Contract Freighters Inc. (CFI) out of Missouri, said he was hauling tractor-supply equipment, which police said included feed and fertilizer, to a tractor-supply store in Crowley. “There was some stuff exploding,” he said.

However, Turner said one of the cars caught fire first, which caused his rig to go up in flames. “I was scared,” he said. He said he saw two men jump out of one of the cars trapped under him.

“I saw those guys jump out,” said Turner. “My trailer caught fire and I had to jump out.” While the two men were sent to the hospital, Swanton said ‘they’re ok,’ and it was nothing short of a miracle they survived. Turner was not injured.

Although he did end-up hitting a semi in front of him, Turner said it was necessary in order to save his own life, and it only caused minor damage. Police said a fourth semi involved, in the very back of the wreck, also suffered minor damage. The main semi involved, which was driven by the deceased trucker, was hauling pea gravel, and according to police, was fully-weighted.

Turner said being a trucker comes with responsibility. “I just wish people would be more careful,” said Turner. “This job is not easy.” A Lakeway man said he was stopped at a traffic light on Valley Mills Drive and saw the entire thing.

“There was an immediate fire, literally instantaneous once he (the deceased trucker) hit, and he hit so hard, the cab of his truck that rear-ended everyone was crushed instantaneously,” said Justin Bradshaw. “He hit ’em so hard, that they came up underneath the tractor-trailer that is burned up right now, and he smashed them underneath that trailer.” Bradshaw was on his way home from visiting family in Oklahoma when he stopped in Waco to grab lunch at Rudy’s Barbeque.

Once he saw the accident, he went to try to help, then took video of the scene. “The fire was too severe to render aid, the heat was pretty intense,” said Bradshaw. “It kinda takes your breath away when you see it, the fire was so intense, it literally melted the rig.” Swanton said the heat had posed problems, making it a more difficult scene to investigate because one of the semi’s was smoking for hours, and it was difficult to get through the wreckage originally to determine the number of fatalities.

He said their focus now is on the crash investigation, including accident reconstruction, to find out what exactly caused the crash.

“We’ll have to do photographic evidence, video evidence, things of that nature,” said Swanton.

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