By John M. Glionna
Los Angeles Times (MCT)
---- — LAS VEGAS — Texas Deputy Sheriff Rod Carroll is calling it the Thanksgiving Day nightmare.
The deputy in Jefferson County, in southeast Texas, heard an emergency call on his radio about a multi-vehicle pileup near his rural home, on Interstate 10 near Beaumont, a Gulf Coast city about 80 miles east of Houston.
Carroll, a 25-year law enforcement veteran, is also a paramedic. He knew his expertise might be valuable, so he headed out toward the stretch of highway, which was a sea of fog in the early morning hours Thursday.
“It was overwhelming,” Carroll, 46, told the Los Angeles Times yesterday. “It was extremely foggy. You couldn’t see 10 feet around you in any direction. It was like some strange dream.”
Officials later determined that two people had died and more than 80 people were injured when at least 140 vehicles collided in a gruesome twist of metal that left trucks stacked on top of one another and rescuers like Carroll rushing to pull survivors from the wreckage.
With traffic stopped on the freeway, Carroll parked his cruiser and walked down the middle of the lanes, responding to wrecked cars and trucks and injured passengers as he found them. The wreckage scene was more than a mile long, so outstretched that officials arriving early had no idea how bad the pileup was or how severe the human toll.
“I saw people lying on the ground covered by a blanket, being attended to by strangers. I saw an infant being loaded into an ambulance. I saw children bleeding,” he told the Times. “It was like a Third World scene, honestly. I just kept walking down that highway, trying to help in any way I could, not knowing what I would encounter next, what would come out of the fog.”
The collisions occurred in extremely foggy conditions about 8:45 a.m. Authorities said a man and a woman were killed in a Chevy Suburban SUV crushed by a tractor-trailer.
“I saw cars on top of cars,” Carroll said. “In some spots there was so much heavy damage and in other areas you could see where people had veered over onto the grass shoulder at the last minute to escape the impact. Those were the lucky ones.”
He said the couple in the Chevy Suburban were not so lucky.
“The semi tractor-trailer was sitting right on top of that SUV,” Carroll said. “At first I didn’t realize that was a vehicle. I thought it was part of the 18-wheeler. I don’t know how anyone could have survived that.”
Carroll said 80 to 90 people were taken to hospitals, with 10 to 12 of those in serious to critical condition. He said 140 to 150 vehicles were involved in the pileup. Authorities said a crash on the eastbound side of the highway led to other accidents in a dangerous chain reaction. There were multiple crashes on the westbound side of the highway as well.
Interstate 10’s eastbound lanes were reopened Thursday evening after being closed for more than eight hours.
Carroll said he will long be haunted by what he saw in the fog on that holiday morning, but also touched by the Good Samaritans he witnessed.
“This was the most-traveled day of the year,” Carroll said. “Part of the problem was that there were so many vehicles on the road. It was all families. Grandparents, grandkids — everyone traveling to see family. But that helped us; it really did.”
He said many people who survived the calamity became first responders.
“It was people helping people,” Carroll said. “We were overwhelmed, and I saw strangers sitting and holding, putting pressure on people that were injured. It was really amazing.”
Carroll said he had never seen anything like the widespread accident in his quarter-century of police work.
“And I just hope to God it was a once-in-a-lifetime event,” he said.