Snowy roads spark deadly pileups across Michigan

Tom Greenwood and Candice Williams
The Detroit News

The first significant snowfall of the new year in Michigan triggered massive highway pileups that killed at least three people, injured about two dozen and closed multiple freeways.

An estimated 193 vehicles were involved in a chain-reaction crash in which one person died and 22 were hurt on Interstate 94 between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek late Friday morning. One of the vehicles was a truck whose load of fireworks ignited, shutting down the freeway in both directions for hours.

"Right in front of me the trucks started to go crazy. You couldn't see a single thing at the time of all the accidents. I was able to pull off and just watch semi after semi and semi and semi hit each other and cars hit each other. I mean people were going full speed ahead," Micah Stanislowski, who was involved in the crash, told WWMT (channel 3) in Battle Creek.

Meanwhile, one person died and another was critically injured in a crash involving 12 jackknifed semitrailers and 15 cars on southbound U.S. 23 near Willis Road, south of Ann Arbor, Michigan State Police said. And on Interstate 75 in Birch Run Township, near Flint, a man hauling scrap with a trailer was killed after his pickup left the freeway and struck a tree. U.S. 23 was reopened around 10 p.m. Friday.

Michigan State Police Lt. Rick Pazder said the I-94 chain reaction crash occurred about 10:07 a.m. Friday between mile markers 88 and 92.

Police said Jean Larocque, a 57-year-old male trucker who worked for a Quebec company, died. Among the 22 injured were two firefighters hurt when the fireworks ignited. One suffered ruptured eardrums and the other an injured back, police said.

Four of the injured were taken to Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo, where they were listed in good condition; six were transported to Bronson Battle Creek Hospital with minor injuries; and six were taken to Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo, where their conditions were unknown.

Non-injured drivers ensnared in the pileup were taken via bus to a local Galesburg school.

HAZMAT officials initially requested a three-mile evacuation radius at mile marker 90 on I-94, near the border of Kalamazoo and Calhoun counties. One of the semis involved in the accident contained 44,000 pounds of hazardous material. By 3 p.m Friday, officials said all material in question had burned off.

Pazder said it was too early in the investigation to determine the cause of the crash, but noted there was snowy weather and the roadway was icy.

"It's a terrible, terrible event," he said, adding 11 fire departments, nine medic companies and three police forces responded to the crash. "A lot of work goes into clearing up something like this."

According to the National Weather Service's Kalamazoo station, the weather at the time included heavy snow with visibility of a quarter mile. The temperature was 8 degrees, with a wind chill of minus 3 degrees.

"As I approached I realized that all the cars were stopped in front of me," said Heather Jackson. "I seen some in the ditch and I seen cars behind me coming at me at regular speed and I knew if I didn't go into the ditch I was going to be hit."

Erica Frederick of Kalamazoo said she was eastbound on I-94 to take her dog to a veterinarian in Battle Creek when traffic came to a standstill.

"Traffic was moving at about 45 mph, and it was snowing heavily," she said. "I came around a curve, and traffic was stopped. I went from 45 to zero and ended up at a dead stop for at least an hour."

Frederick saw a big, black cloud of smoke over the freeway. "Then the radio said there had been a pileup and that one of the semis was full of fireworks and they were going off at the scene. People started getting out of their cars and walked toward the fire, which was maybe one-fourth mile away. I stayed in my car."

Then the first responders started to show up. "I saw EMS vehicles arriving the whole time I was stopped," Frederick said. "Then they brought in a bus, and I could see survivors being helped onto the bus. They had blankets wrapped around them."

Liz Skrzypek of Canton Township and her husband, Jeff, were headed to Chicago on I-94 west Friday afternoon when they took a detour onto the business route to avoid the crash scene. "On the way, we saw a lot of cars off the road, several on the median and on the side of the road in ditches," she said.

Fifteen cars were involved in the U.S. 23 crash early Friday afternoon just north of Milan, Michigan Police Sgt. Michael Sura said.

Sura said the crash remains under investigation, but "there were whiteout conditions."

Around 1 p.m., "there was a solid sheet of ice with drifts," said Scott Hall of Milan, who works at the BP gas station on Willis. "With the blowing of the snow... you can't see."

A second crash in Washtenaw County tangled traffic on U.S. 23 from Willow Road to the Monroe County line.

The fallout from a day of treacherous conditions was reminiscent of other weather-related pileups in recent years in Metro Detroit and the Midwest.

On Jan. 23, 2014, three people died, and more than 20 were injured in a massive, 46-vehicle crash near Michigan City, Ind., about 30 miles outside of Chicago. The smash-up involved two box trucks and 18 semis and occurred during whiteout conditions. Among the three victims were Thomas Wolma, 67, and his wife, Marilyn, 65, of Grand Rapids. The third victim was Jerry Dalrymple, 65, of Chicago, who died along with his dog.

A 30 car-and-truck chain reaction on Jan. 13, 2013, on I-75 in Detroit killed three people, including a 7-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl, and sent 13 others to the hospital.

Besides the crashes Friday, the weather led to school closures across the state.

Kalamazoo College closed on Friday along with hundreds of elementary, middle and high schools. Some districts that shut for the day included Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Saginaw and Traverse City. Some Kalamazoo-area schools were closed for the third consecutive day. Grand Valley State University and Grand Rapids Community College also closed.

Meanwhile, the emergency room at McLaren Oakland hospital in Pontiac was closed to new patients after an external water main break flooded parts of the hospital early Friday, officials said.

The break led to "several feet of flooding in the ER," said Sharyl Smith, vice president of marketing, planning and public relations.

Detroit News Staff Writers Mark Hicks and Derek Draplin and the Associated Press contributed.