Black Ice Highway
SAN ANGELO, TX — Wednesday night, after the sun went away, the temperature dropped to 30 degrees with a misting drizzle. It was couple degrees colder not far north of San Angelo towards Big Spring on U.S. 87 where it was also drizzling.
The radio cackled.
“Rollover, multiple vehicles in 10-50, U.S. 87 north in Coke County, just north of the Tom Green County line,” the dispatcher over he radio said.
A 10-50, pronounced “ten-fifty”, is police code for a major vehicle crash. Multiple calls followed for ambulances and more volunteers from the Water Valley Volunteer Fire Department. We departed the office here in San Angelo, headed for the highway catastrophe.
As the light misting drizzle hit the pavement, the ground was warm enough to prevent the dampness from becoming ice, despite the freezing outside air temperature. But on elevated roadways, like over bridges, invisible black ice was forming quickly. One could not visually tell the difference between the wet pavement and the icy film forming on the roadways on the bridges.
Meanwhile, as we inched north towards the crash scene to file a news report, it seemed every car was passing us. Over the bridges near Grape Creek, our Ford F-150 slipped and slid in the outside lane. In the inside lane, pickups, SUVs and even giant sand trucks passed us by. We were cruising at 45-50 mph as we drove towards Carlsbad. It wouldn’t be long now as we approached the reported area of the 10-50.
A 2010 Ford F-150 passed us as we approached the Chalk Creek Bridge on the four-lane divided highway. As the truck arrived on the other side of the bridge in front of us, it looked like the driver decided to take a U-turn through the center grassy median to turn around and head southbound.
As we approached the turning truck, it violently began to roll towards the incoming lanes on the opposite side of the highway. The truck rolled three times before settling upright in the middle of the southbound lanes. Luckily, the first crash several miles north had slowed the southbound traffic. What vehicles were traveling south had room, time and space to stop and the drivers exited their vehicles to rush to render aid.
We stopped beyond the shoulder, in the barrow ditch, on the northbound side. My partner for the night, Sam Fowler, was already on the phone calling 9-1-1. The crash, seen so close, looked violent. We pulled over to the side of the northbound side and stopped just ahead of he crumpled pickup now sitting upright in the southbound lanes.
As we walked across four lanes and a median and approached the truck, we heard someone else who had stopped right behind the crumpled truck firmly say, “I think he’s still inside the truck!”
Above: The crumpled truck. (LIVE! Photo/Sam Fowler)
Was he alive? In the darkness, we couldn’t see inside the truck from behind. I wasn’t sure how I would react to finding a dead driver or passenger inside.
“He’s moving,” said the first guy who made it to the truck. Someone else stopped and was attempting to slow and direct traffic around the crumpled F-150 about 200 yards north with a three-battery flashlight. The 9-1-1 operator was asking Sam questions.
“Is he breathing?” the dispatcher asked.
The truck had a sole occupant, the driver, and he was visibly in pain. “My hand,” he complained.
His left hand was a bloody mess, likely cut by the smashed front windshield. He was wearing a seatbelt, however. That’s why we didn’t find him outside the truck somewhere.
Someone fetched a clean rag to wrap the man’s hand. “Where’s my phone,” he asked. He wanted to call his wife. Meanwhile, the engine was still running but the doors were sealed shut from the rollover’s bending of the frames around both driver’s side and passenger’s side doors.
“We need to get him out of there,” someone said.
“No, don’t move him until we find out if he has a neck or back injury,” said another. That led to asking the injured driver if he can feel his toes. He could.
“Where are my keys,” the driver asked. Still in shock from surviving the rollover, he didn’t immediately realize his keys were still in the ignition. After getting through window on the driver’s side, someone reached inside and turned off the truck.
Troopers from the DPS arrived soon afterwards in a Chevy Suburban. Other troopers and medical personnel were still busy with the crash several miles further towards Big Spring. We watched as an armada of flatbed trucks from the San Angelo wrecking service called Home Motors passed headed northbound to the crash we were originally headed to.
Meanwhile, across the median, we heard a shriek as another pickup lost control on the black ice in the northbound lanes of the Chalk Creek Bridge. The truck veered into the median towards us. Then, while in the grass in the median, the driver regained control and drove right, away from us, much to our relief.
Yet, we were witnesses to a major crash here and law enforcement was on the scene. The wind and the misty drizzle in the now 28-degree air were taking its toll on us. Besides, we needed to get to the bigger crash up the highway. Could we leave?
I handed my card to the trooper. He recognized me. We both gave him a statement on what we saw and he cleared us to leave.
Just then, we hear another shriek from the bridge on the northbound side of the highway. Another pickup hit the same patch of black ice. The truck fish tailed, but regained control before it hit the median like the two trucks prior.
Back into our truck, we began the final stretch of our trip to the crash in Coke County, which someone had said involved five cars. By now, the radio had downgraded it to a three-vehicle affair.
Just north beyond the rest area in Coke County we found three Home Motors flatbeds loading up the carnage. No one died, we were told, and the scene was almost picked up.
Above: The original crash scene we were headed to. Three pickups rolled in black ice. (LIVE! Photo/Sam Fowler)
“Not much of a story here,” Sam said. There’s always a story, I told him. But tonight, the story was the black ice and how it was wreaking havoc on the hard working men returning home in their pickups from working all day. All of the vehicles in both crashes involved only pickups. The call for the first crash happened at 7:30 p.m. By now, it was after 9 p.m.
With so many crashes, why didn’t authorities close the highway?
DPS told us they don’t close major highways unless they become impassable. On SH 158 between Sterling City and Midland earlier Wednesday, the highway became impassable because with icing on the hilly roadway, most cars and trucks could not climb them. That is a reason to close, not higher-than-normal crash incidences.
On the way home, we heard the troopers on the radio informing dispatch they were leaving the Chalk Creek Bridge crash scene. The field investigation was complete.
By the time we reached 29th Street in San Angelo, the radio sounded off again.
“10-50 on U.S. 87 at Chalk Creek Bridge,” it cackled.
Another one. And so the night was on the Black Ice Highway.