The first few times I heard, “the fog lights have been activated on I-75” on the radio or TV when we moved to Cleveland, Tennessee, I had no clue what the big deal was. All you had to do was look out the window and you could see the fog. Couldn’t everyone see it, I could? Fog is common around here because of the mountains and valleys, the rivers and the lakes. Wait a little while and it will burn off, right?
Then one night on the evening news I caught the tail end of a story about a very serious “wreck” on I-75 that happened years ago. I heard enough of the story that it left me wanting more information. After some research, this is what I found out and why it is a big deal when you hear, “The fog lights have been activated on I-75.”
Date: December 11, 1990
Place: Interstate I-75, McMinn County, Calhoun, Tennessee
Result: 99 vehicles, 13 deaths and at least 42 injuries
Lay of the land: The Hiwassee River is the border between McMinn and Bradley Counties and is part of the reason for this area having a continual fog problem.
That fateful day back in 1990 heavy fog covered the interstate, north and south bound lanes soon became killing fields when at 9:10 AM trucks and cars began to pile up. The few flashing warning signs on the highway did not help. Witnesses told of hearing the crunch of metal and cracking glass as tractor trailers and cars collided. There were explosions and fires, death and destruction. Witnesses described the scene as a war zone.
The NTSB report that came out states the first accident was because a trucker in the southbound lane slowed due to the weather conditions and he was hit in the rear by a second semi. Both drivers exited their trucks to check for damage. Then the chain reaction started as the second truck was hit in the rear by another semi and so on. Vehicles in the northbound lane caused the second pile-up due to rubber necking.
The Hiwassee River, where the fog was the most dense, saw the worst of the tangled mess. With the highway at a standstill, helicopters from Chattanooga and Knoxville had to go in and take victims to the hospitals in Cleveland and Athens. Helicopters were they only way to reach the area. Thirty-three different fire departments responded.
In 1993 a fog warning system was installed on I-75 in the fog zone where the accident occurred. There are 19 miles of fog lights, 8 fog detectors and 22 speed detectors that were installed at a cost of almost 4.5 million dollars. Gates were put in at several on/off ramps at various exists in the area. The gates are operated by sensors. The highway can literally be shut down and traffic re-routed to side roads. There is extra yellow reflective tape on the road and many flashing warning lights. Tennessee State Troopers try to make sure speed limits are strictly enforced, especially on this stretch of the highway.
This accident is still talked about today as one of the worst accidents in Tennessee’s history. What reminded me of this story today was the announcement from the weatherman on Channel 3….”The fog lights on I-75 have been activated.” We take that stretch of highway on I-75, mostly on clear days, without much thought. We have been on it twice in fog, but light fog. It does make one stop and think. Life can be taken away in the blink of an eye or under the veil of fog.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) has been updating their monitoring system along I-75 near Calhoun. This year more cameras have been added south as far as Athens to help monitor any and all traffic ‘situations’ on this heavily traveled interstate. These new cameras should be in place by the fall of 2010. .
I don’t think I will ever take that stretch of I-75 and not think about what happened that day. There is no evidence, no reminders that 13 people lost their lives. The only things that look out of place to strangers passing through are those fog warning lights and all the yellow tape.
Accidents happen, we know that. We need to monitor our driving habits. Don’t speed, don’t drink and drive, don’t use the cell phones while driving, and please drive appropriately for the weather conditions. Fog can kill, it already has.
Remember, the fog lights have been activated on I-75.
WRCB TV, Chattanooga
US101 Radio, Chattanooga