Authorities: Smoke from marsh fires, fog to blame for 79-car pileup near Port Arthur

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by Larry Seward / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on January 5, 2012 at 8:59 AM

Updated Thursday, Jan 5 at 7:21 PM

PORT ARTHUR, Texas—Fifty-four people were hurt in a massive pileup involving 79 vehicles on a highway near Port Arthur early Thursday, authorities said.

"I have never seen a crash this large in Jefferson County," said Trooper Stephanie Davis, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The Texas DPS received the initial call about a four-vehicle crash on Highway 73, near Taylor’s Bayou, around 5:45 a.m.

But 911 dispatchers quickly began to receive numerous calls about subsequent crashes and reports of poor visibility in the area.

"About 5:30 this morning, [I] just hit some smoke and fog," said Andy Stanley, a driver. "[My windshield] just went black. Everything went black."

Troopers and EMS personnel who responded to the scene immediately encountered dense fog, which combined with smoke from fires at the McFaddin Wildlife Refuge.

"Everybody was hitting everybody like dominoes falling over," said driver Jared Binson.

Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputy Rod Carroll said there were 22 separate crashes in all, two of which involved burning vehicles.

"When we got out of the truck we heard boom, boom, boom right behind us non-stop," said Jesus Gonzalez, a trained emergency responder who was on the scene immediately after the crashes started. "There was an explosion further down. A car actually did pop off."

Gonzalez and two fellow responders sprang into action and began helping people get to safety.

"We were pulling people out of cars and helping them," he said.

Somehow, though Gonzalez’s truck was in the middle of everything, it escaped without a scratch. Other drivers weren’t so lucky.

"There was an actual gas leak under one man’s car," said Basillio Renovato. "So we pulled him out as safely as we could. We sat him down until paramedics arrived."

"We were trying to get out," said George Salazar, another driver. "[My brother and I] had to just get out and run but they still kept hitting each other. Everybody kept hitting each other. Thank God we’re OK."

Of the 54 people injured, four were taken to the hospital in critical condition. One of those critical patients apparently had a heart attack after the accident, Carroll said.

None of the injuries suffered in the crashes appeared to be life-threatening. Carroll said many of the victims suffered broken bones and abrasions.

The injured were transported to four area hospitals – Baptist Hospital in Beaumont, The Medical Center of Southeast Texas in Port Arthur, Christus Hospital-St. Elizabeth in Beaumont and Christus Hospital –St. Mary in Port Arthur.

Highway 73 was shut down for hours after the accidents. The westbound lanes reopened at 9:45 a.m., and the eastbound lanes reopened at noon.

State troopers have issued 18 citations in connection with the pile-up, with violations ranging from failure to control speed to driving with a suspended license.

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