Like 'driving with a blindfold': Police, Idaho drivers describe conditions leading to 39-vehicle crash

Cars are stopped after a 39-car crash in Idaho on Friday, Jan. 7.

Cars are stopped after a 39-car crash in Idaho on Friday, Jan. 7. (Fremont County Search & Rescue)



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ISLAND PARK — One driver said it was like "driving with a blindfold."

After 39 vehicles were involved in a low-visibility crash on U.S. Highway 20 north of Island Park on Friday, people were scared and stranded in the snowstorm. The many emergency and tow truck crews who responded proved that "tough calls can bring out the best," Idaho State Police said.

The crash

ISP told EastIdahoNews.com last week that the massive multivehicle crash was caused by a semi-truck hitting a passenger car that was stopped due to low visibility in the eastbound lane of U.S. Highway 20. The crash happened around 3 p.m. north of Island Park. Multiple subsequent crashes happened behind the semi-truck.

"It was literally driving with a blindfold on or closing your eyes. You couldn't see anything. The only thing you had to do was stop because the storm hit so fast," said Patrick Shaw, who was driving at the time and was at the tail end of the crash.

Shaw told EastIdahoNews.com that he lives in Island Park and was headed to Idaho Falls. He said he pulled his truck into a ditch to avoid the stopped traffic in front of him.

"I saw a car coming from behind me. He was pretty far back, and he was coming pretty fast. I knew things were at a stop. He saw me last second because of the visibility," said Shaw. "He hit my taillight."

Two Fremont County deputies were hurt.

"One (Fremont County deputy) was standing outside of his vehicle when another vehicle came to the crash scene and struck him in the low visibility," said Idaho State Police Lt. Marvin Crain. "The other (deputy) was sitting in his patrol vehicle when another vehicle came into the crash scene and struck his vehicle. Both of them were transported with minor injuries to a local hospital, checked out and released (within the same day.)"

People were taken to the hospital — 14 of them, including the two deputies. Nine ambulances responded. But no one was seriously hurt.

'It was calm'

Shaw said in his eyes, it wasn't a chaotic scene. He decided to jump out and help because he said it was the right thing to do.

"It was calm because we were literally in a storm, a blizzard, a whiteout. You couldn't see anything in front of you so you couldn't really hear anyone," he said. "I loaded some people onto a stretcher and put them in an ambulance, just held the blankets down because it was windy and you couldn't see anything in front of you."

Crain told EastIdahoNews.com on Wednesday that multiple agencies came to assist. Despite the blowing snow and frigid, dangerous temperatures, the first responders came together and helped people who were confused, scared and stranded in their vehicles.

Idaho State Police posted on its Facebook page this week, "In the harshest of times, coming together to weather the storm is how we help each other, which in the end, is how we help ourselves. Tough calls can bring out the best, and the men and women of ISP want to thank all the skilled and dedicated responders, including tow truck and snowplow drivers from both Idaho and Montana who, without hesitation, responded in the middle of a blizzard to protect and save lives."

Idaho State Police at the scene of a 39-car crash on Friday.
Idaho State Police at the scene of a 39-car crash on Friday. (Photo: Idaho State Police)

"The people we had on the ground working that incident, did a fabulous job. They were able to handle that and make sure all the needs of the people involved were taken care of and they got them to a safe location," said Crain.

Crain said it took six hours to clean up all the crashes.

"What happened at the crash scene was amazing, what they were able to accomplish in the amount of time with that kind of incident," said Crain.

He said the road was closed through the night due to weather conditions because of blowing and drifting snow. It reopened the next day (Saturday) around 8 a.m.

'Be prepared'

It's not an everyday occurrence to have such a large crash scene, and Crain said it's important to be alert when driving in winter conditions.

"Anytime we drive in winter conditions, we need to be ready for those conditions to change rapidly or at any time and what happened (in this situation) is as soon as they came out on the flats, there was no trees to block the wind, and that gave us a snow ground blizzard along with falling snow and it turned to low visibility immediately," said Crain. "Just be prepared anytime you are driving in those areas or situations. Conditions can change rapidly."

The agencies involved that helped in the crash include Fremont County Sheriff's Office and Fremont County Search & Rescue, Madison County Sheriff's Office, Gallatin County Sheriff's Office, West Yellowstone Police Department, Ashton Police Department, Island Park Ambulance, Madison County Ambulance Service, North Fremont Fire Department, Idaho State Police and the Idaho Department of Transportation.

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Andrea Olson

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