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Amber Alert

Monday, January 21, 2008

100-vehicle pileup shuts Ontario highway

More than 100 cars were involved in massive pileups Sunday as sudden whiteouts turned sections of highways north of Toronto into parking lots of twisted metal, trapping several people in their vehicles in bitter cold. Dozens of people were injured in the crashes, but no one was killed, in part, because poor visibility had slowed drivers down, police said. Many also credited the driver of a tractor trailer who swerved his rig off the road at the last minute to avoid slamming into stopped cars.

“It looked like a wrecking yard – all the vehicles everywhere, in the ditch, everything,” Constable David Woodford of the Ontario Provincial Police said about the pileups, among the worst in the province's history in terms of the number of vehicles involved.

The vast majority of the accidents occurred on icy Highway 400 south of Barrie just after noon. The largest collision involved 37 vehicles and sent 29 people to hospital; another had 30 cars. In addition, about a dozen vehicles crashed on Highway 404 south of Aurora. Parts of both highways were closed for hours.

Glenn Wright, the tractor-trailer driver credited as being a hero, said if he hadn't reacted quickly and veered off into the ditch, the scene could have been much worse.

“I had to do it. There's no question. There's no other options, either go in here [the ditch] or hit that guy,” he told A-Channel news of his defensive driving.

Lori Ayres, who was driving in front of Mr. Wright, couldn't be more thankful. “If he hadn't gotten off, he would have hit us all and it could have been a bigger mess than it is already,” she told the news station, her voice shaking. “I went over and thanked him. I said ‘Thank God, you saved my life.' Because if he had kept going straight … it would have been over.”

Constable Woodford described the accidents as “a chain-reaction type of thing.”

“All of the sudden, a snow squall comes through, a band of snow flurries comes through this area, and we had zero visibility – like you couldn't see in front of you – and it only takes one person to slam on their brakes and lose control and the next thing you know everybody's running into each other,” he said.

Emergency vehicles were delayed in reaching the Highway 400 collisions due to reduced visibility and backed-up traffic. Firefighters cut away the centre steel median to allow cruisers and ambulances through and to redirect vehicles that weren't involved in the crashes. Air ambulances hovered in the area as a precautionary measure; paramedics, police and firefighters came from all over the region.

Constable Woodford, who lives near the site of the largest accident, was one of the first police officers on the scene and ran from car to car checking people's injuries. He invited some into his cruiser to keep warm.

“They're panicking. The first thing they're worried about is someone else going to run into the back of them,” he said. “We had numerous people trapped, they couldn't get out, injured, the whole bit.”

Hernan Burgos, who lives about 100 metres from the highway, was heading home from church when he saw about 20 tow trucks and an ambulance bus zip by. When he arrived on the scene, he said people were shaken up, but relatively calm.

“A lot of people were thankful that nothing big happened,” said Mr. Burgos, a 43-year-old computer consultant who said the area has been the site of previous accidents. “… There were little pieces of cars everywhere.”

People kept warm in buses before being taken to two makeshift collision reporting centres where tow truck drivers brought damaged vehicles and police took reports. People bonded over cups of coffee while waiting, telling stories about their ordeals.

A woman named Alyssa told Global TV she was “very lucky, very lucky” to have come through the crash unscathed. “I want to go. I still have a four-hour drive to do. My toes feel like they're going to fall off. I'm kind of frustrated,” she said while waiting.

Snowplows and salt trucks cleared the highway and transport workers repaired the median before the highway was to reopen Sunday night.

The area is known for accidents due to poor winter visibility: In March, 2007, some 75 cars, trucks, semi-trailers and buses slammed into each other in two massive chain-reaction crashes blamed on blowing snow and high winds.

Sunday's pileups occurred as a blast of bitter weather brought reminders of winter's wrath. The frigid, windy weather – morning temperatures in Toronto dipped as low as –13 and the wind chill made it feel like –25 – came as a shock in a winter that has been unseasonably warm.

“It feels cold because of the winds, but it's way away from record temperatures,” said AndrĂ© Cyr, an Environment Canada forecaster. “It's nothing unusual because we didn't see very much over the last few years, but we're back into kind of a normal winter and that's what the normal winter looks like.”

Indeed, Torontonians have become accustomed to warmer-than-usual winters; the record high temperature for Jan. 20 was set in 2006 when it reached 11.4 degrees. The record cold temperature for the day was in 1939, when it was –23.3. So far this month, the high temperature was 15.5 on Jan. 8. The low was just a few days earlier on Jan. 3, when the temperature was –7.7.

For the second time this month, the city issued an extreme cold weather alert Saturday to activate extra services for the homeless, including 80 more shelter beds, three additional patrol vans and extended shelter hours. Forty-two people made use of the extra beds. Alerts are called when the forecast low is –15 or colder; the forecast overnight low of –14 was deemed close enough because of the strong winds. The last alert was called on Jan. 1.

The forecast for the rest of the week is for slightly warmer weather, with highs ranging between –6 and –1. Environment Canada is predicting that the rest of the winter will be above normal in Southern Ontario. As well Sunday, New York State police said heavy snowfall and accidents north of Syracuse forced the closing of Interstate Route 81, which runs south from the Thousand Islands Bridge in Eastern Ontario.Source