As car after car slammed into each other in whiteout conditions on a Wisconsin highway, 911 dispatchers handled hundreds of calls from frightened motorists.
The chain-reaction accident Sunday, on Interstate 41 in Neenah, Wisconsin, involved 131 vehicles, according to the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office.
One person was killed – 30-year-old science teacher Andrew Schefelker – and 71 others were taken to area hospitals, the sheriff’s office said.
The office released recordings of some of the 911 calls, revealing travelers’ fears and desperation as the crashes mounted.
“Help, I’m on the highway. There’s a huge accident, a huge (inaudible). I’m so scared,” an unidentified woman tells a dispatcher.
The dispatcher asks the woman to take a deep breath and tries to find out where she is.
“I’m on – hang on, hang on – there’s a huge pileup – people are,” the woman starts to answer as screaming and crunching noises are audible in the background.
“Help, help, help!” she says later in the call.
More crunching can be heard, but it’s hard to tell whether more accidents are unfolding or if someone is walking in the snow.
“Get back in your vehicle. Get back in your vehicle,” the dispatcher says as the crunching continues. “Ma’am, ma’am, ma’am.”
The recording then ends.
Another call starts calmly as a passenger in a blue truck explains that she and her husband had hit another vehicle due to poor visibility.
“It’s like the snow blowing right across the highway and everybody is like – it’s a pileup now,” she says.
The caller tries to count how many vehicles are involved when more crashes happen.
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” she says. “Everybody is just crashing into us because we’re like stopped on the side.”
The dispatcher tells the caller and her husband to stay in the vehicle, put their seat belts on and turn on the hazard lights.
“My car’s just shaking, I don’t feel safe in the car – what do we do? Oh My God. Help us please,” she says.
The dispatcher is able to calm the woman down and assures her that help is on the way.
Altogether, emergency medical service dispatchers handled 772 weather-related 911 calls between 11:05 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday in Winnebago County, the sheriff’s office said.
It took about two hours to stabilize the scene, get uninjured motorists to a nearby location to warm up and to reroute about 500 vehicles stuck behind the pileup.
The interstate didn’t reopen until 3 a.m. Monday.