ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST PARISH, La. – At least eight people were killed and 63 were injured in a massive pileup on Interstate 55 outside New Orleans on Monday, caused by a thick layer of super fog – a combination of fog and wildfire smoke – that dramatically reduced visibility.
At least 158 vehicles were involved in 25 accidents on the roadway, shortly before 9 a.m.
The work to remove mangled and incinerated vehicles continued throughout the night into Tuesday. Crews have been inspecting an elevated section of highway adjacent to Lake Pontchartrain to see if heat from the intense flames compromised the busy stretch of road.
"As of this update, all vehicles have been removed from both sides of I-55, and DOTD (Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development) has begun the clean-up of the roadway," said the Louisiana State Police in an accident investigation statement. "DOTD bridge inspectors are onsite conducting preliminary inspections and have identified multiple areas requiring bridge repairs.
Louisiana State Police said that I-55 would remain closed in both directions in the area until that assessment is complete. Some sections have since been reopened, but in a Wednesday morning Facebook post state police said I-55 remained closed in both directions from Interstate 10 to Ponchatoula as the inspections of the roadway continue.
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No super fog expected midweek
The deadly combination of smoke from a marsh wildfire, a weather inversion and fog knocked visibility to near zero. One eyewitness told FOX Weather that he couldn't see the stopped cars in front of him. He saw them on the GPS and hit the brakes narrowly escaping being a victim himself.
Atmospheric conditions are improving in the New Orleans Metro area. Meteorologists are not expecting dense, widespread fog in the morning.
"As for fog, yes the marsh fire is still going on and this is likely not going to change for some time but fog potential is minimal at best for the next few days," wrote the New Orleans NWS is the forecast discussion.
Stronger winds paired with warmer temperatures and no rain should keep prevent the fog.
"No rain so generally dry soils," continued the NWS. "So this will keep fog formation at bay outside of the patchy light fog that typically impacts the usual spots and leads to no impacts."
The state desperately needs the rain though. Drought conditions are adding fuel to the fire.
"Most of the state is in exceptional and extreme drought," Merwin said. "Over 85% of Louisiana is dealing with those drought conditions, and the marsh fires are burning in a location where (firefighters) can’t really access them. So, they’re going to continue to burn."
‘I won’t forget the faces'
Louisiana State Police said nearly 160 vehicles were involved in the pileup Monday morning, and injuries varied from critical to minor.
FOX Weather spoke with several witnesses to the fatal pileup on I-55 on Monday, including a woman who was headed to the airport with her mother when visibility suddenly dropped and chaos ensued.
Erica Glory said she wasn’t supposed to be on that highway Monday morning, but because the causeway over Lake Pontchartrain was closed, she and her mother needed to take an alternate route.
"It was definitely low visibility, but we could still kind of see ahead," she said.
Glory told FOX Weather meteorologist Jason Frazer that they were keeping their distance from other vehicles and kept their low beams on, but when they came upon the elevated section of I-55 where the fatal pileup occurred, everything changed.
"That visibility dropped to absolute zero," she said. "It was that fog mixing with the marsh fires. We couldn’t see the front end of my car. And all of a sudden, we hit a wall of taillights."
Glory said her mother managed to avoid the crash, but they both instantly became terrified that they would be hit from behind by people who were unaware of what was waiting inside the thick wall of super fog.
"It was definitely terrifying," she continued. "Those are people’s faces I won’t forget. Both the people I remember passing up on the interstate that I later am now seeing their cars in these pictures of the wreck. I won’t forget the faces of the people who kind of made it out with me."
Glory said her initial instinct was to get out and run for safety.
"You know there are cars coming behind you, and there’s nothing you can do," she said. "My instinct was to get out and run, and that was further fueled by people running all around me."
Glory’s mother is the one who told her to stay put.
"I see these people running in from behind me trying to get out from these cars they’re stuck in to avoid getting hit," she said. "And (her mother) is like, ‘Erica, you are safer inside this enclosed metal cage. Do not get out of this car.’"
Glory said that if there’s one thing she learned from the tragedy, it is to remain in the car.
"We’re on a bridge," she said. "So, you had two rails on the side. It’s not like you can get into the distance safely. We really had nowhere to go."
All they could do, she said, was to wait.
"There were cars stopped in front of us. There were cars continuing to get pushed forward," she said. "We kind of just had to sit there and wait it out and hope for the best. You know? Try not to think about what was happening, and we were just waiting for it to end."