[UPDATE 1:00 p.m.] A massive pileup, estimated to have involved as many as 100 vehicles, caused a traffic nightmare along the icy Pennsylvania Turnpike just hours after a speed restriction was lifted Friday morning.
Multiple accidents left dozens of vehicles wrecked, nearly two dozen motorists injured and hundreds of people stranded along a 5-mile stretch of toll road between the Willow Grove and Bensalem/U.S. 1 exits in the Feasterville-Trevose area of Bucks and Montgomery Counties.
“My heart was just like … oh my God. There’s no words to express it,” said Maria Schoeler who was stuck directly behind a multi-vehicle wreck. “It’s pretty crazy. It’s something you don’t expect with this many vehicles. It’s pretty treacherous.”
Turnpike Commission spokesman Bill Capone said the first wreck — including 10 cars and five tractor-trailers — happened around 8:25 a.m. about one mile from the Bensalem Interchange.
From there, another series of other crashes occurred within moments. The wreckage included at least 16 cars and SUVs piled up behind two big rigs, an overturned van. A jackknifed tractor-trailer, also involved in that crash, had multiple cars wedged between and underneath it. A moving van sideways on the partially slushy roadway.
As many as 100 cars, trucks and SUVs in total were involved in the wreckage — hundreds of other cars were left at a standstill on the roadway between the crashes.
Pedro Leal says he was in the middle of his normal morning commute on the turnpike when the collision unfolded ahead of him. He says he was about a mile away from the start of the chain reaction when he had to slam on his brakes.
“In front of me there were three or four cars, about 50 feet in front of me,” Leal said. “We all kind of slammed our brakes. None of us hit anybody, but a couple of the people in front of us did. An older Bronco hit a Ford Focus, and that’s completely mangled.”
Leal says he spent the first few hours after the collision walking around just surveying the damage, which in his opinion started from poor road conditions. He took picturesand posted them to social media.
“I think it was the fact that people were going too quick and reached an ice patch, or a tractor-trailer might have hit a really big ice patch and he began to jackknife and fishtail, and a lot of people tried not to hit him and slammed their breaks also.”
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Multiple chain reactions, multiple pile-ups
“It looked like multiple cars couldn’t stop,” said SkyForce10’s Jeremy Haas.
“We just started seeing a lot of minor accidents, a lot of cars trying to brake but they couldn’t brake in time.”
“We could see that the road had a lot of frozen ice on it,” said Lisa Terreri.
Terreri and her husband were able to stop, winding up stuck between two of the crash scenes.
A second pileup further east involved nearly 20-vehicle wreck that included two tractor-trailers, a FedEx truck, cars and SUVs. A man appeared to be caught in his car for more than an hour after the crash. That man was helped onto a stretcher by first responders before being led away in an ambulance.
24 people were transported to local hospitals. Abington Memorial Hospital said they received 16 patients — five were trauma cases — three went to Doylestown Hospital and five others went to St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne, Pa.
Abington Dr. John Kelly said the most severely injured were likely sent to Abington and that most of the injured people weren’t severely hurt.
The crashes stopped traffic eastbound and slowed traffic in the westbound lanes — westbound traffic was intermittently stopped so that emergency personnel could respond. It took more than one hour after the wrecks for emergency crews to reach many of the scenes. One NBC10 viewer sent in a photo of an ambulance stuck in traffic that snarled all the way back to the Northeast Extension (almost 10 miles away).
The Turnpike was closed at Willow Grove and police were forcing everyone off at that exit.
How to avoiding the wreckage
There is no direct alternate route for the Turnpike but for people trying to avoid the wreck, the Turnpike Commission suggested that motorists exit at Willow Grove then head northbound on Route 611 and turn onto Street Road (Route 132) until it intersects with U.S. Route 1 in the Bensalem area.
From the Fort Washington (Route 309) Interchange you can take Route 309 northbound to the Norristown Road Exit. From there go right on Norristown Road and turn right on Horsham Road before going left on northbound Route 611.
Ice, sun glare and driving too close are likely causes
No word yet on exact causes of the wrecks but the roadway appeared to be icy after more snow overnight — you could literally see ice built up on the asphalt.
Pennsylvania State Police said that they believe that drivers driving too close and too fast for the conditions possibly played a role.
A snow-related speed restriction, which was for much of the roadway, was removed around 6 a.m. Friday. A nor’easter left around 1 foot of snow in the area of the crashes.
NBC10 First Alert Weather meteorologist Bill Henley said sun glare possibly played a role in the wreck. Henley said drivers were traveling directly towards the brilliant early morning sun.
Pedro Leal agrees. “I drive this route every Monday through Friday. The glare is always pretty bad, and people usually slow down, but I guess they didn’t see the ice they usually see, and they all just started piling up,” he said.
Local municipalities like the Bensalem Police Department were also brought in to respond to the crash.
The Turnpike Commission enacted Plan X shortly after the wreck.
“Plan X,” is the method by which the Commission, in emergency situations such as multiple vehicle accidents, closes certain sections of the Turnpike and reroutes traffic around the affected sections. The Commission has established pre-approved routes for both commercial and passenger vehicles. Turnpike personnel at affected interchanges will distribute written re-routing directional cards to assist exiting customers.
“Plan X” also means that crews expect it to take more than an hour to clear the roadway.
AAA urged motorists to turn off cars to conserve fuel and limit battery usage. Despite the advice many motorists could be seen standing outside their cars using their cellphones.
Some of the stuck motorists were headed to work, which could help them stay comfortable while waiting out the wreck.
“I have provisions,” said Dana Goodman who was headed to his job in Mount Holly. “I have my lunch here with me sitting in the car. I pack every day.”
After a couple of hours, motorists stuck towards the end of the backup began turning around and driving the wrong way. It wasn’t clear if police directed them to U-turn.
Capone said that authorities were directing stuck motorists off at an access road gate in Willow Grove.
Around 11:30 a.m. some cars on the front-end of the crashes began to get moving past the wrecks as well.
After cars that can move are moved, the next step is a massive towing process.
“Given the fact that many of these vehicles are damaged to the point where they can’t be driven from the scene there are a number that have to be towed,” said Capone.
Minutes before the eastbound wrecks, a multi-car crash blocked traffic westbound. The cars crashed around 7:40 a.m. along the westbound lanes of the Turnpike in Upper Moreland Township, a couple miles ahead of the Willow Grove/Route 611 Interchange.
It’s unknown if anyone was hurt in that wreck.
WHYY’s Tom MacDonald also contributed to this report.