"Stumbling Out Of The Fog:" Memories Of The Worst Traffic Accident in Tennessee History
25 years ago, death was hidden in the fog on Interstate 75 near Calhoun, Tennessee.
On the morning of December 11, 1990, 12 people were killed, 42 people were injured when dense fog formed within just a couple of hours just north of the Exit 36 bridge on I-75.
Then-Bradley County deputy Bill Dyer was dispatched on a call about a wreck on the interstate... he traveled to the Bradley-McMinn County border and could not find one. He did encounter thick, heavy fog---fog so thick "you could move it with your hand." Dyer had to actually travel into McMinn County out of his jurisdiction to turn around and come back into Bradley County.
At the Exit 36 off-ramp, he saw a sight that would change his life forever.
"A man stumbled out of the fog towards my police cruiser," he remembers. "His face was bloody and he was about to collapse. As I got out to help him, I started hearing the sound of metal crunching, just one right after the other. It was coming from north of the bridge over the freeway, but I couldn't see anything. I stabilized the victim and started running toward the sounds I was hearing."
"And then," he says.... "I heard the screams."
99 vehicles.... cars, pickups, 18-wheelers.. all plowing into each other within seconds. Most of the wrecks were in the southbound lanes, but one part of the accident scene was on the northbound side, all of them hidden in the fog.
Dyer, by all accounts, the first law enforcement officer on the scene, immediately radioed for back up and emergency medical ambulances. He also sent out a desperate plea to get the interstate shut down immediately northbound and southbound, but he emphasized southbound. That's were the most serious wrecks were.
Becky Isbill was in one of those accidents. She was able to stop in time---her instincts told her to get out of the car quickly and it was a good thing she did. A car that could not stop in time, sideswiped her vehicle and skidded into the back of a wrecked 18-wheeler. All of a sudden, another 18-wheeler, tires squealing, slams into the back of the car. The two people in that car died.
All of this right in front of her.
"Right before the wreck happened, the people in the car were OK," she remembers thinking. "And then after the truck hits them, the realization that they were not going to be OK."
Clean-up took a couple of days. The deceased removed... the injured rushed to hospitals... the tangled metal and debris hauled away. A huge section of the interstate had to be completely rebuilt, from the ground up.
Soon afterward, the Tennessee Department of Transportation installed a fog detection system, that once activated, alerted drivers with warning signs, flashing lights and lowered speed limits. The instances of crashes in northern Bradley County and McMinn County dramatically decreased over the years as drivers paid attention to the warnings. The detection system operates to this day, and was recently modified with high-definition, swivel cameras that can rotate 360 degrees with zoom capability.
"Even now whenever I drive in fog," says Becky Isbill, "I keep thinking to myself 'people slow down, please slow down. They just don't know what might up right in front of them that they can't stop for."
There's even been talk of equipping all new vehicles with standard equipment that automatically brakes the car if it detects a stationary object in the fog ahead of it that the driver cannot see yet. Some vehicles have that technology right now. "It should be as standard on vehicles as seat belts and anti-lock brakes," says Jim Hall, the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The I-75 fog zone accident still ranks as the worst traffic accident in Tennessee history. The federal government ranks it in the top 5 worst traffic accidents of all time in the United States.
"Those drivers weren't expecting their lives to change," Bill Dyer says. "I wasn't expecting my life to change. The fog put us in a circumstance where all of our lives changed."