NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The toll from a series of crashes on a Louisiana interstate rose to eight dead and 63 injured Tuesday evening, a day after a “super fog” of marsh fire smoke and dense fog snared more than 160 vehicles in the fiery pileup, authorities said.
Lance Scott was among the many drivers caught in the wreckage on Interstate 55 west of New Orleans. The 51-year-old had been driving his daughter to the airport Monday morning when the fog thickened like a “white-out on a ski slope.” He slammed on his brakes, narrowly avoiding the cars in front of him while hearing “the most horrendous clank of metal” behind him.
“It was, ’Bang. Bang. Bang.’ It just went on… for probably 45 seconds,” Scott said. “As every second went by the clanking of the metal got a little bit fainter, which told me it was backing up — so I knew there was layers and layers of collisions.”
Scott turned to his 24-year-old daughter, an intensive care unit nurse, and said to her, “There’s going to be a lot of people who need help and I need you to go out and do what you do.”
Amid the ominous crackling of flames in the wreckage, the fog slowly lifted afterward to reveal the extent of the pileup. Scott and his daughter helped people out of their cars, some with noticeably broken collarbones. One had to wait for first responders to bring the Jaws of Life.
An estimated 168 vehicles were involved in the crashes, Louisiana State Police said. By Tuesday evening the number of fatalities had increased from seven to eight and the number of reported injured more than doubled, Louisiana State Police said in a news release.
At least 63 people were injured, with injuries ranging from minor to critical, others sought medical aid on their own, authorities said in the update.
It is unclear whether it was the most significant crash ever handled by Louisiana State Police, given the number of vehicles and fatalities involved, state police Sgt. Kate Stegall told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
“However, I can tell you that this is an extensive and devastating incident, resulting in loss of lives and profound repercussions for both the community and first responders,” Stegall said.
The crashes began before 9 a.m. Monday along a one-mile (1.6-kilometer) stretch of the elevated interstate, which passes over swamp and open water between Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas, State Police Sgt. Kate Stegall said in a news briefing.
The crashes left a long stretch of mangled and scorched cars, trucks and tractor-trailers. Crushed vehicles were piled atop each other, blackened by flames. Some people got out of their vehicles and stood on the side of the road or on the roofs of their cars looking on in disbelief at the disaster. Others cried out for help.
Scott said there was “great camaraderie” as people sprang into action, helping others. With drivers warning others about a nearby fire from the crash, people moved away from the wreckage. They waited for 45 minutes for paramedics to reach them and for transportation off the bridge.
Clarencia Patterson Reed, 46, was driving to Manchac with her wife and niece and saw people waving for her to stop, but once she stopped, two other vehicles hit her car from behind and the side, she told The Associated Press. Patterson Reed escaped from her side of the car, but her wife was pinned inside, her side and a leg injured. Others stepped in to help, she said.
“I just thank God,” she said. “There was a casualty a few cars ahead of us.”
Another driver Christopher Coll, said he was already braking when a pickup truck “drove up on top of my work trailer and took me for a ride.”
Coll could smell smoke as he heard cars crashing and tires popping. He was able to kick open his passenger door to escape and then helped others — pulling one person out a car window.
School buses were summoned to transport stranded motorists from the accident sites.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards asked for prayers “for those hurt and killed” Monday and issued a call for blood donors.
Crews removed the last vehicles Tuesday afternoon and began a cleanup of debris, diesel and other chemicals littering the area, authorities said. Additionally, the state’s transportation department identified multiple areas requiring bridge repairs as inspections continued.
The National Weather Service said there were multiple wetland fires in the region Monday and smoke from the fires mixed with fog to create a “super fog.”
Parts of the highway reopened Tuesday afternoon. But hazardous driving conditions Tuesday morning prompted several schools in the area to close or delay openings as tow trucks continued to haul debris off of the interstate.
Associated Press photographer Gerald Herbert and writer Beatrice Dupuy contributed to this report. McGill reported from New Orleans and Cline from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.