Third victim of 53-car I-96 pileup identified

Holly Fournier, and James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Fowlerville — Vitalii Stelmakh, a 28 year old semitrailer driver out of Hollywood, Florida, was identified Monday morning as the third casualty in a 53-car pile-up Thursday that closed westbound Interstate 96 near Fowlerville Road for more than 12 hours.

Reader Bradley Strader sent this photo from the back of the 42 vehicle pile up, "Pure sheet of unsalted ice was more a factor than whiteout."

An Ann Arbor couple, Homer Leon Tew, 69, and Theresa O'Connor Tew, 62, also died in the crash. The Tews were killed when their vehicle was crushed between two semi-trucks shortly before 10 a.m., Lt. Eric Sanborn of the Livingston County Sheriff's Office confirmed Friday morning.

Eleven other motorists were rushed to local hospitals with non-life threatening injuries.

The fatalities and injuries came after a sudden snow squall consumed vehicles and erased all visibility along the I-96 stretch near Fowlerville. The flurries disappeared, revealing what one motorist called “a wall of cars." Black ice prevented startled drivers from stopping in time. There was nowhere to go, many survivors said.

The crash started when two drivers heading westbound on I-96 lost control of their cars after blustery conditions turned into a sudden “whiteout,” Michigan State Police Sgt. Jeff Munoz said Thursday. Before long, dozens of vehicles joined the pileup.

Survivors who did not need medical attention were transported to the Fowlerville Police Department, which served as a place for police to conduct additional interviews and as a reunification point for people who were being picked up by others. Tables overflowed with food donated by local businesses.

Some motorists there counted themselves lucky to be alive.

Babatunde Oyewumi, 46, of Redford Township suffered a gash to the back of his head, which was wrapped in bright white gauze Thursday afternoon, along with a sprained jaw, several bruises and a broken tooth.

“You couldn’t see; everything became dark,” Oyewumi said of the whiteout. “I thank God that I am alive.”

Oyewumi’s wife arrived to pick him up shortly before 2:30 p.m., with their 15-month-old daughter asleep in the backseat.

“God is good,” said Oyewumi quietly, as he hugged his wife outside the station.

Snow squall hits

Sanborn on Thursday said the weather was to blame for the severity of the crash, though motorists might have been driving faster than conditions allowed.

"Everything is under investigation” after the massive crash, Sanborn said. "It's too early to figure out any kind of fault.”

Jordan Dale, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said the area of the crash was experiencing a “snow squall” that originated from Lake Michigan and headed east. In snow squalls, a half-inch of snow can fall in just a half-hour’s time.

The crash covered several hundred yards, including at least nine semitrailers and 27 cars, and drew first responders from about 20 agencies from Livingston and Ingham counties.

“There were a lot of people with very severe injuries,” said Bradley Strader, 55, a senior transportation planner from Beverly Hills who was in the crash. “A lot of carnage.”

Two passenger cars, one red and one a dark color, were unrecognizable, smashed between two semitrailers. Dozens of emergency vehicles were sitting on either side of the pileup with lights blazing, as emergency personnel assessed the scene.

‘A pure sheet of ice’

Strader was commuting westbound on I-96 at the time of the crash in a rented Chrysler 200.

“I was traveling westbound to Lansing with a co-worker,” he said. “There had been a whiteout earlier, as that part of 96 has a tendency to do. I came up over a hill and saw an auto carrier jackknifing across the road. I thought I had time to stop, and tapped my brakes, but was driving on a pure sheet of ice.

“I hit the guardrail, then the car in front of me. Then we were hit from behind,” Strader added. “Someone came up to the side of the car and said I had to get out — my gas tank was leaking, and a car behind me was on fire. They helped pull us out of the window.”

For Charlie Barrett, 30, of Canton Township, the pileup was simply unavoidable.

“The whiteout cleared, and I didn’t really comprehend (what I was seeing) at first,” he said. “I immediately tried to apply the brakes but it was very difficult (and) icy. ... I tried to brace for impact. I didn’t have many options of where to go.”

Barrett slammed into the back of another vehicle and immediately switched on his hazard lights as incoming cars crashed around him. He escaped serious injury aside from a sore elbow and cut to his hand.

But a nearby semitrailer was leaking gasoline onto the roadway, Barrett said. He and a dozen other motorists bailed from their vehicles to get away in case the truck caught fire.

“The fire department contained it,” Barrett said of the spill. Luckily, there was no fire.

Good Samaritans

Bob Francoeur of Massachusetts, in town for business, also found himself in the middle of the pileup.

“I tried to look for a path and ended up getting into the pile of cars,” said Francoeur, 62. “I got hit by about six more vehicles while I was sitting there. I just knew I had to hold on and hope for the best.

“There were cars all around me, blocking all four doors, and the electric windows weren’t working. But the back window had gotten broken out.”

Francoeur climbed over shattered glass, crawled out the back window, and stepped into a scene of good Samaritans, he said.

“All the mayhem happened and it got quiet, and then there were people running car by car, doing inventory to see if people were OK,” said Francoeur, who escaped with a few bruises. “It was nice to see people doing good, without thinking about it. Just doing it.”

(313) 223-4616


Staff writer Chad Livengood contributed.