Turnpike Commission chief concedes 'gaps' in response to pileup

Chris Dudli of Collegeville waits for the road to reopen after the Valentine's Day pileup between the Pa. Turnpike's Bensalem and Willow Grove exits.
Chris Dudli of Collegeville waits for the road to reopen after the Valentine's Day pileup between the Pa. Turnpike's Bensalem and Willow Grove exits. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 13, 2014

HARRISBURG - A higher-than-usual number of accidents due to lingering conditions after a heavy winter storm overwhelmed Pennsylvania Turnpike responders during the massive Valentine's Day pileup in Bucks and Montgomery Counties, turnpike officials told a Senate panel Tuesday.

Mark Compton, the Turnpike Commission's chief executive officer, told the Transportation Committee that there were "gaps" in the agency's response.

But he said the high volume of accidents across the turnpike during the morning rush hour on Feb. 14 because of scattered, fast-forming icy patches tested the agency's ability to reach the 100-plus vehicle pileup between the Bensalem and Willow Grove exits.

"We had limited resources to get to all incidents on the roadway. We were stretched thin," Compton said. "We need to work on our response to large incidents."

Sen. John Rafferty (R., Montgomery), chairman of the committee, appeared unconvinced by Compton's explanation.

"I can't go back and undo the accidents, but I can work with you to make sure we have a better command structure and better communication," Rafferty said.

Rafferty waved a copy of the accident report produced after an epic 50-mile backup on Valentine's Day 2007 on I-78 near Hamburg that trapped some motorists for more than a day.

He said later he thought technical and communication problems involving first responders should have been addressed by now.

Compton said that there were difficulties in communication with local responding agencies, but that such problems were not unexpected given the scale of the accident.

"There's no question that there was some chaos," he said.

Turnpike officials and state police say the roadway had been treated for ice that morning and was wet when suddenly, dipping temperatures caused fresh patches of ice to form.

Lt. Col. George L. Bivens, deputy commissioner of operations for the state police, said police believed that human error combined with weather conditions and severe glare contributed to the string of accidents.

Rafferty and other lawmakers said the "Jersey barriers" that divide the highway hampered first responders' ability to reach the scene.

He said there ought to be a way to install steel gates every few miles so rescue crews and police can access an affected area from the opposite side of the highway.

The accidents began about 8:30 a.m. as dozens of cars and trucks began skidding into each other on the eastbound lanes of the turnpike, injuring at least 25 people, stranding motorists, and shutting down the roadway.

Forty-one crashes involved 139 vehicles, Bivens said.

Bivens said 52 citations were issued following the pileup, most related to excessive speed.

The turnpike had only hours earlier lifted its 45 m.p.h. speed limit at the tail end of a brutal storm that dumped as much as 20 inches of snow on Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Craig Shuey, the commission's chief operating officer, said the speed limit was removed because most of the system was clear.

The road was shut down for eight hours, trapping hundreds of people in cars as the wreckage was cleared. Good Samaritans threw packages of water and food over fences lining the highway.

Bivens said that while the state police could not offer bottled water, several of their 15 troopers on the scene walked the three-mile-long backup to check on drivers and get treatment for anyone needing medical care.

Rafferty said he planned to make recommendations to the relevant agencies, likely to include improved communications and highway access, that he hoped they would adopt to avoid the need for additional legislation.


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