DUBLIN, Ga. (AP) — The first word about fog or smoke on Interstate 16 came at 7:46 a.m. on Feb. 6, 2013, from a caller wanting emergency officials to know about a section of road where it was difficult to see.
“Hey sweetie, when you leave Dublin on the interstate going toward Macon, this fog and smoke is so bad that all of the vehicles just about stop when they go through it,” the caller said. “It’s so bad. I’ll try to tell you the mile marker. I’m ahead of it now. It’s terrible. I don’t think I’ve ever seen something that bad in Georgia where you couldn’t see on the Interstate.”
A few calls later there was word of a massive pileup on I-16. Recordings of 911 calls from that morning, released to The Courier Herald through an open records request, illustrate how emergency workers responded to the crash, which killed four people, injured nine and involved more than two dozen vehicles.
During that initial call, the dispatcher said she would let the deputies know about the poor visibility. The caller finally sees mile marker 37, telling the dispatcher that the fog or smoke was probably around mile marker 35. Not long after, a dispatcher called the Georgia Department of Transportation and told the man who answered that they had received calls.
“Visibility is almost zero and vehicles are coming to almost a complete stop when they hit it,” the dispatcher said.
Another caller called 911 and said he was going west and that visibility was “almost down to zero. Literally you can’t see over the hood. They need to let people know what’s happening. Somebody is going to get killed out there.”
Dispatchers then put out a notice that between the 35 and 37 mile markers, visibility was down to zero and that Transportation had been notified.
More calls came in about the fog and smoke and the callers were told it had been reported already.
One caller tells dispatch that cars had pulled off to the side of the road. A caller said “It is so smoky that you cannot see your hand in front of your face. There’s fog but the smoke is the worse. You can’t see anything.”
The very next call was a man wondering if they had heard about a major pile up on I-16.
“Has people actually wrecked?” the dispatcher asked. “We were told they had pulled off to the side of the road.”
He told them there were “probably six or eight.” He didn’t know if anybody was hurt. “I’m just trying to get out of the way.”
Another caller told a dispatcher: “I’m on 16 west. I don’t know if there is a fire but there is a major car pileup right now.”
When told that help was on the way, the woman, whose voice continued to rise with excitement said: “Please hurry. They are crashing like every second. I’m scared to get out of the car. . There are multiple wrecks. The wrecks keep coming because nobody can see to stop .. I keep hearing crashes.”
One caller told them that he ran up on the fog or smoke so quick.
“You don’t know what to do. It’s real dangerous out there.”
Not long after law enforcement is notified about the wrecks, 911 gets a call from a man who is screaming.
“We have a helluva a wreck out here on I-16,” he said. “I just turned around and hit the rail. Big trucks are running over another truck every time they come down. Me and my wife are all right. I don’t know about some other people.”
Another caller told the center that there was a major wreck on I-16.
For the first time, a dispatcher is told that there are at least 10 vehicles involved. Around that time a man called telling them “I heard a big slam and tires squalling. I did not see what happened.”
Around 8:12 a.m., the call went out about a possible 10 vehicle pileup on I-16 westbound around mile marker 36. Not long after that, a man called saying: “We’ve got a … mess out here. . We just had several rear-enders right behind me where everybody stopped in this fog and smoke out here. . It’s quite a mess.”
Word then got to dispatchers there was a tanker on fire. Rescue workers began responding to 911 that they were on the way. Soon a caller told them there were injuries.
While all of this was going on, 911 was getting other emergency calls from elsewhere in the county. The next call about the accident on I-16 was from a woman talking quickly.
“We’ve got an explosion out here on 16 baby, going toward Macon,” she said. “(Not audible) Somebody is out there in the road. Y’all hurry please.”
Other calls came in about it. A woman called in crying: “I had to turn around because the truck has exploded.”
Another woman reported there was a man in a FedEx truck hurt badly.
“My car is down there by all of that explosion. There are several cars down there.”
Rescuers wanted to know information about what was on the truck.
“Have they advised what was in that tanker?” a rescue worker asked before asking for a wind direction. Not long after that, Laurens County Sheriff Bill Harrell informed dispatch that traffic needed to be rerouted.
“It looks like it’s awful,” Harrell said.
Laurens County Deputy Sid Harrison was the first to approach the scene. When asked if he needed help, he said: “Yes sir.” He was also concerned with traffic on the eastbound lanes.
One law enforcement officer said he was easing up to the wreck.
Eventually Harrison and Harrell stopped close to the wreck as others worked on finding a way to the scene or started to reroute traffic.
Laurens County Fire Chief and EMA Director Don Bryant called for a tanker truck to roll while Bleckley and Twiggs were helping further up the road with traffic.
Injuries started to be reported to dispatchers.
“We are going to have about 12 walking wounded on the Macon side of the wreck,” a rescue worker said. “We can’t get by because of the guardrails up here. . We are going to have to retreat at this point.
It’s too hazardous to try to do anything. There is just too much fire down here. We’re going to have to get the fire put out.”
There was a lot of communications about which way rescue vehicles should approach the wreck scene. While one group of firefighters were discussing this, a dispatcher informed them that “one of the SO units advise that they need a fire truck on the eastbound side ASAP.”
Not long after that, someone asked for the eastside of I-16 to be “shut down.”
“We’re going to have to bring fire trucks up the eastbound lane to attack this fire,” the person said.
At one point, they had to hold up until a truck was moved out of the way. A law enforcement official talked about directing traffic and was informed that Bleckley County was sending people to help.
There was a question if a rescue personnel could go up the eastbound lane. Not long after that, they advised that they could do that.
Shortly thereafter, Engine 111 made it to the scene.
The call for another fire truck on the eastbound side was asked for while instructions were given out for others responding to the scene.
Somebody called disptach and told them to hold the traffic because vehicles were trying to make it through.
An EMS worker called in telling dispatch that they were on the way to Fairview Park Hospital with two patients on a board that stabilizes possible spinal injuries and another person who was walking.
He said they were not in critical condition.
Soon a detour route was announced, telling law enforcement that they needed to send traffic. The ER at Fairview asked dispatch if they needed to set up any decontamination rooms.
Eventually the call was made to cancel the other fire trucks that were in route.
“We have enough equipment on scene,” the person said. “The fire is basically under control. We are just going to be doing mop up.”
The first call about the accident came in at 8:09 a.m., and the road wasn’t cleared until 7:21 p.m.
The day may have been over, but the investigation of this tragedy was just beginning.
Listening to the calls from that morning, Joy Pope, administrative assistant and dispatcher since 2003, was proud of the way the staff handled the situation.
“As far as capacity and how big it was, we’ve never had anything as big as this,” she said. “We got a lot of calls and I don’t think we were able to pick them all up. It was a rough morning but I thought everybody involved did a good job.”
(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)