Breaking news award: fatal crash in fog

ap awardFor other portfolio pieces, go to the links on my home page.

This article won third place for breaking news in Division 1 in the Associated Press Society of Ohio 1999 contest. It was published Sept. 4, 1999, in the News Herald in Port Clinton, Ohio.

We were on deadline for our afternoon newspaper shortly before 7:30 a.m. Friday Sept. 3. My duties that morning included filing a report on the foggy weather and how that affected the school schedules. Then the city editor and I heard the police scanner going crazy with reports of a chain-reaction crash on Ohio Route 2 just west of Port Clinton. This is a heavily traveled tourist and commuter route. Firefighters were saying on their radios “we have zero visibility.”

It was clearly not safe to drive out to a scene where fire was mixed into fog; especially in that location where the highway travels over a river and through wetlands. But we had a good relationship with the Ohio State Highway Patrol, which was in command of the scene, and their dispatcher promised to call us as soon as the area was safe.

After that call, our staff photographer, Rachel Rice, and I drove to the entrance ramp to Ohio 2 and talked our way past police barricades by explaining the authorization from the state patrol. We then proceeded to walk up and down the closed highway. Burned and smashed vehicles still littered the bridge, and plenty of witnesses were still standing by.

The usually prompt and thorough troopers had so many details to piece together that they could not provide accident investigation forms by our deadline. I developed this narrative based on interviews, one press release, what I heard on the scanner, my reporting on the weather conditions for Friday’s edition and what I saw at the scene.  — Paula Wethington

By PAULA WETHINGTON / Staff writer

ERIE TOWNSHIP – A series of chain-reaction crashes Friday morning on Ohio 2 at the Ohio 163 interchange and on the Portage River Bridge left a Put-in-Bay woman dead and nine other people injured.

Eighteen vehicles in all were involved in the two pileups, the Ohio Highway Patrol in Sandusky reported.

Islander Melanie Wrobbel, 42, of Put-in-Bay, died when her pickup truck, ran into the back of a tractor-trailer. She was trapped in the burning 1999 Dodge Dakota pickup on the Portage River Bridge while bystanders and firefighters tried to douse the blaze and rescue her, troopers said. Troopers said she died at 12:25 p.m. Friday at a Toledo hospital.

The accidents began about 7:20 a.m. Friday – around the time that a thick fog settled into the area.

“The fog was extremely heavy here,” said Lt. Gabe Ferencz as he stood on the Portage River bridge surveying the site about three hours later. He is the commander of the Ohio State Highway Patrol post in Sandusky, which is investigating the chain-reaction crashes.

Although there had been light fog in Ottawa County for several mornings in a row, Friday’s fog was the only one contributing to traffic accidents and school closings.

As a result of the pileups, a section of westbound Ohio 2 was closed for about five hours.

Ohio Department of Transportation officials reported westbound traffic was diverted off the four-lane highway at Ohio 163 in Erie Township after the first chain-reaction crash; then diverted off at Ohio 53 in Bay Township after the second series of accidents happened on a bridge over the river. Authorities reopened the highway at 12:15 p.m.

Although Ohio 2 has been the site of chain-reaction crashes before, Ferencz said it’s no surprise that the Portage River Bridge can be hazardous during certain weather conditions.

Any bridge, he said, will ice up during a winter storm. And with the Portage River running under the bridge, fog often forms in the area, National Weather Service officials said.

Dispatchers at the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office received their first call at 7:22 a.m. of an accident on Ohio 2.

Ferencz said that crash happened on the approach to the bridge over Ohio 163 when a tractor-trailer rig struck a patrol vehicle being driven by officers from the state patrol’s Motor Carrier Enforcement Division.

Then a pickup hit the back of that tractor-trailer.

Kristin Gerold of Bellevue, who was stuck in the traffic jam about a mile behind that crash, said the pickup driver’s name was Scott Beck and he was a member of the Ohio National Guard 213th Maintenance Unit at Camp Perry.

Both of them, and some of the other people stuck in the traffic jam, were on their way to Camp Perry to get ready for the guard unit’s annual two-week training session.

Erie Township Emergency Medical Service took the pickup driver to H.B. Magruder Hospital in Port Clinton, Erie Township Fire Chief Marty Mortus said.

That driver was sent by ambulance to St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center, said David Norwine, hospital president and CEO at Magruder Hospital. By the time he was stabilized for travel, the fog was so bad that Toledo’s medical helicopter crews would not fly to Port Clinton.

In the meantime, traffic started winding its way off Ohio 2 at Ohio 163. Mortus said Erie and Bay township firefighters were still working on cleanup efforts at the three-vehicle pileup when another accident began about 8 a.m. in the approaching westbound traffic, on the Portage River Bridge.

During the second pileup, Ferencz said, a car ended up on top of another car and the nearby Dakota pickup caught fire.

Bystanders tried, but were not able, to get Wrobble out of the pickup, Ferencz said.

But some of them grabbed fire extinguishers from nearby tractor-trailer rigs and started putting out the blaze. Then firefighters who were just down the highway from the first accident started rushing to the second crash with their equipment and gear.

Once the pickup driver was freed from the wreckage, she went by ambulance to Magruder Hospital. Hospital officials said she was later flown by medical helicopter to Toledo Hospital.

Some of the motorists who were caught in the Ohio 2 traffic jam said the fog was so thick they could not see beyond the front of their vehicles.

Ferencz said because visbility was so bad, motorists kept slamming into the back of the burning pickup. Fifteen vehicles were eventually involved in that pileup.

Most vehicles stuck in the westbound traffic jam were later re-routed off the highway by turning around and exiting at Ohio 53, where an Ottawa County Sheriff’s deputy prevented motorists from getting onto the westbound lanes.

But since some tractor-trailers could not be turned around easily, several truck drivers parked on the berm and waited for the highway to be cleared.

As Gerold chatted with two Cleveland-area truck drivers, and took them up on an offer of some chocolate donuts, she recalled being annoyed at one point on Ohio 2 because those two truckers, driving in convoy, were traveling side by side in the lanes and she couldn’t pass.

But Gerold added had she passed them, her pickup likely would have been involved in one of the pileups.

“Lucky for me,” she added.

Although most smaller vehicles had already left the highway, Gerold said since she didn’t know the county roads in the area, she thought she was better off staying on Ohio 2.

In the meantime, Magruder Hospital’s emergency room staff treated eight other patients. All were released after treatment. Norwine said five patients arrived by ambulance, three others drove themselves to the hospital.

Since the second accident happened about the time that the emergency room doctors’ shifts change, the night doctor had not yet gone home and there were two emergency room doctors at the hospital. The other departments, such as radiology, also were able to keep up with treatment of the accident victims and other patients who came in for unrelated reasons.

“Everyone did just a super job,” Norwine said.

Even by Friday afternoon, troopers had not yet sorted all the accident details.

“We’ll be working on this for awhile,” Ferencz said.

A release from the Columbus office of the Ohio Highway Patrol states names of other drivers and passengers will likely not be released until Tuesday.

Emergency crews responding to the Ohio 2 crashes included the Ohio State Highway Patrol, Bay Township Fire Department, Erie Township Fire Department, Port Clinton Emergency Medical Service, and Ohio Department of Transportation.

Several wrecker crews, including one displaying a Middleburg Heights address, also assisted the rescuers.

I also had two sidebars that explained the procedures that local rescuers have set up for handling accidents in the bridge area, and how the school bus drivers coped with the sudden fog. The copy desk created a map. We used an AP report about the fog causing traffic problems that morning on the Ohio Turnpike, which runs east-west in the next county south. Another reporter submitted a sidebar about the weekend fog forecast.

News Herald September 1999

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