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Smoke from fireworks possibly played role in 32-car crash on New Year's Eve

Deputies responding to the scene said they could only see 10 feet in front of them.
A 32-car crash sent nine people to the hospital. [AUSTIN POLICE DEPARTMENT PHOTO]
By Elizabeth Findell efindell@statesman.com
Posted: Jan. 2, 2019 1:15 pm

More than 50 people were part of a pileup involving 32 vehicles — two of them semitrucks — just an hour after ringing in the new year in Austin, Texas.

Authorities began receiving reports of multiple collisions around 1:09 a.m. Tuesday near southbound Texas 130 and Harold Green Road, where dense fog obscured the road, said Travis County sheriff’s Capt. Craig Smith. Paramedics evaluated 56 people and took nine to the hospital with nonlife-threatening injuries ranging from mild to serious, according to tweets from Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services.

“I have been with the sheriff’s office 26 years, and I have never seen a collision of this size,” Smith said.

The fog was so thick that one of the first deputies on the scene had his patrol vehicle hit — twice — as he attempted to respond, Smith said. Deputies reported that they could only see about 10 feet in front of their cars. Though most of the people involved in the crash were driving slowly, they still couldn’t see in time to stop, he said.

Despite the New Year’s holiday, alcohol did not appear to be a factor in any of the crashes.

“To my surprise, we made no arrests out of this and issued no citations,” Smith said. “They did not find anyone who seemed impaired.”

He attributed the wrecks instead to late-night traffic through an area notorious for heavy fog and to a chain reaction from one collision.

The pileup prompted questions of whether smoke from celebratory fireworks could have made the fog worse. Cory Van Pelt, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Antonio, said a temperature inversion and lack of wind kept both clouds and smoke close to the ground. Smoke can create particles for clouds to form on, he said.

“It was some speculation because it was about the time the fireworks were going off,” Van Pelt said. “I can’t say for sure that happened, but it’s possible.”

The tollway was closed throughout the morning as emergency responders worked to clear the scene. It reopened just before 9 a.m. Wednesday, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

Austin police reminded people via Twitter not to drive if they’d been drinking at New Year’s Eve parties. EMS called the incident a Level 3 mass casualty incident and begged motorists to be aware of the poor visibility.

“HEAVY FOG in the area SLOW DOWN,” the group tweeted.

Smith said training had helped nine agencies — including the sheriff’s office, EMS, Austin Police Department, Texas Department of Public Safety, Austin Fire Department and others — to work together smoothly at the scene.

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