FREDERICKSBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Interstate 78 in Lebanon County reopened at 5 a.m. Sunday, some 19 hours after it closed following Saturday’s pile-up that involved 64 cars, tractor trailers, and box trucks.
The only evidence of the series of crashes was a little debris and roughed-up snow in the median.
But those involved face bigger impacts.
“We dodged a bullet yesterday,” Jeffrey Brown said Sunday.
Brown was driving to work near Hamburg, Berks County, from Mechanicsburg with his 7-year-old daughter Alayna. She was in the backseat watching a movie as he drove eastbound down I-78.
The weather was pretty nice.
“All of a sudden,” he said, “it just, it turns into a mini-blizzard. And I said to her, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, we just entered a winter wonderland.”
That’s when cars started veering off the road, blinded by blowing snow. The tractor trailer in front of him started jackknifing, somehow avoiding toppling over or hitting other cars.
“And I’m just yelling at her,” Brown said. “‘Hang on,’ I said. ‘I think we’re crashing.’”
Brown spun out to the right off the road.
“I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. I didn’t know what we were going to hit,” Brown said, choking back tears and looking down at his daughter sitting next to him. “And I just wanted to make sure she was okay.”
Unbelievably, they didn’t hit anything, and no one hit them. Their SUV is fine and so are they.
As Brown sat on the side of the road for hours watching medical helicopters land and take off, the gravity sunk in.
“Just watching that is an eerie, eerie feeling,” he said. “I thought there would be a lot more than three people dead, really.”
In addition to the three who died (identified Sunday afternoon by state police), the Pennsylvania Department of Health and state police now say 73 people were injured.
In all, the health department says 10 hospitals, from Harrisburg out to Allentown and Pottstown, reported injuries from the pile-up.
Thirteen patients went to Penn State Hershey Medical Center, five of them via helicopter.
“We practice for game day, and yesterday was game day,” said Dr. Scott Armen, director of trauma surgery at the hospital. “And we played well.”
The level 1 trauma center got early warnings they might see a large number of casualties all at once, said Dr. Jeffrey Lubin, division chief for pre-hospital and transport medicine.
The communications center at the hospital — located in the emergency department — listened in to scanner traffic “and heard that there was a massive response there,” Lubin said.
“We were ready for a massive onslaught. We didn’t know what we were going to get.”
The hospital prepped extra rooms for trauma. More doctors came in. The emergency response plan worked.
“All the different entities within the hospital, all the different specialties within the hospital really came together nicely as a team,” Lubin said.
One of the patients brought to the trauma center was pregnant. She’s now doing well.
But one of the 13 was still in critical condition Sunday. Four others were in fair condition, and one patient was in good condition, a hospital spokesperson said. The seven other patients had been discharged by Sunday morning.
At least two other Midstate hospitals treated and released all the patients they received. Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, another level 1 trauma center, could not provide updates on the 20 patients they received.
“It was nobody’s fault. It just happened,” Brown said of Saturday’s mess. He’s sick of seeing people blaming truck drivers or PennDOT for the pile-up.
Visibility on the highway dropped to zero in an instant, he said. “What are your instincts with no time to react? You do the best you can.”
He’s focused more on his dog — the reason he was a little late leaving for work Saturday.
“Somebody was watching over us yesterday, I tell you that much,” he said. “The difference five seconds in your life can make.”