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Turnpike needs a better plan

Published: Sun, December 8, 2013 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Todd Franko (Contact)

Thanksgiving evening was a horrible scene on the Ohio Turnpike.

A Kent man’s reckless driving at speeds in excess of 120 mph came to a fiery and fatal end between Sandusky and Toledo.

And in the worst of scenarios, the fatalities were two people from Toledo who were innocent victims of the other driver, 24-year-old Andrew Gans.

Gans survived, and is now in Sandusky County Jail on a $1 million bond, facing two counts of aggravated vehicular homicide.

I had the fortune and misfortune of being part of the scene.

Fortune in that, about 15 minutes before the accident, Gans flew by me. I was driving almost 80 mph, and out of nowhere in my mirror came Gans. He was gone as quickly as he came. So fast, I could not make out the type of car. When he passed, my car shook in his wake.

A trooper passed me several minutes later — but nowhere close to the speed of Gans. A few minutes later, traffic ground to a halt just west of the Fremont exit. Gans covered 62 miles in 26 minutes, troopers said.

The trooper lights were distinct from the fiery orange of the van fire. More rescue lights would come past me as about 15-20 response vehicles sped along the inside and outside shoulders of I-80 headed to the scene.

About 2 miles of drivers sat parked on the turnpike. Based on the number of people evident in my 10th-of-a-mile neighborhood out there, I have guessed about 2,000 people total; could’ve been 3,000; could’ve been 1,000.

We. Sat. With. Nothing. For four hours. That’s where the misfortune begins.

Now before you rise up with a “How dare you, there were fatalities and you weren’t one of them,” please note that:

A) I am grateful to have not been a fatal statistic and recognize that, had I been in the left lane instead of the middle, I could have been.

B) I recognize that tending to the accident was first priority. All rescue vehicles were on scene in the first 45 minutes. For the next 3 hours and 15 minutes, the road shoulders were absent of rescue vehicles.

When you trap 2,000 or so people for too long of a period, two things are certain:

Some of them in time will become their own casualty for health reasons.

Some will take matters into their own hands.

Both happened.

Nothing on the websites of the turnpike or the Ohio State Highway Patrol offered any advisement to those of us stuck. The turnpike site did warn oncoming westbound traffic that they were being redirected at Ohio 4.

While most of us managed fine, would you want your teen son or elderly mom stuck in such a situation — especially when there were options? That’s where I enjoyed some healthy debate this week with turnpike, OSHP and other state officials.

I’m not quite sure the turnpike folks were receptive.

But I’m emboldened by histories such as airlines once thinking little about stranding passengers on tarmacs for hours; the NFL never believing it had a concussion problem; law enforcement never thinking you could mobilize masses when children were kidnapped; and stadiums never pondering ending alcohol sales before the game ended.

You think about better ways to exist when you’re absolutely powerless to do anything about your situation — which we were.

That night, a handful of us would get out of our cars every 30 minutes or so and share our latest info from radio, tweets or websites. What was clear to us was that we could not go forward, and we accepted that: It’s a horrific human loss that is also a crime scene.

What we could not understand was the lack of a plan to reverse us and allow us to exit just one mile backward to the Fremont exit. We could see it; we could hear it; it was a perfectly clear 40-degree night; we just had no one allowing us to go there.

Turnpike boss Rick Hodges was quick to return my call this week, and was polite in our differences of opinion, which for me came down to two key points:

2,000 of us were left with no indication as to our fate. How long would we be there? Two hours? Four hours? Six hours?

The turnpike has a website, a Facebook page and huge trucks with huge signboards that can land Captain Kirk. Yet no attempt was made to communicate to the people they essentially had complete control over.

In Boston last spring, city residents were in a panic as the bombing brothers sped through town and had a shootout with police. When it was finally over, police sensed the need to let people know immediately it was over, and they Tweeted the news instantly, and a city breathed.

The Fremont exit was right there for all of us. Three hours earlier, the shoulders were viable enough for firetrucks, ambulances and more to access the accident. They could have been perfect routes to reverse drivers out of there, too.

Our group looked at the exit frequently, and pondered a plan. But as I told many people this week, none of us wanted to be “that guy.” I kept thinking: “It’s so easy, a turnpike crew will show up any minute.” They never did.

Hodges said it’s a safety issue, that it’s better to just lock everyone down to ensure there aren’t more casualties.

Some of the 2,000 became casualties.

Halfway into the third hour of our stay, two ambulances came barreling down the shoulder. They stopped at a car in front of me where a guy was having a diabetic issue. He got hauled away in one ambulance.

People were relieving themselves all about the highway (easier for the men; not so easy for the ladies). Cars ran out of gas or killed their batteries as they ran them frequently for heat.

One friend who was stuck half a mile behind me was among a group who U-turned in the barrier split and headed down the eastbound lanes. Turnpike officials closed that off.

Several drivers drove the wrong way down the shoulder. One guy drove by me in reverse along the shoulder.

I told Hodges that if navigating traffic in that tight an area is so dangerous, which Hodges explained, how does America fill about 80 stadiums every Saturday and Sunday in September with either baseball or football fans — some drunk, some banner-waving, all of them pre-occupied — and it’s generally deemed safe and normal. The turnpike was a stadium parking lot, essentially.

Our group devised that a team of 10 brightly dressed and well-lit staffers, slicing the traffic a 10th of a mile at a time, starting closest to the exit, could have emptied the 2 miles in short time. We accepted that not all drivers would want to leave the road, and semis might not have the flexibility.

When I suggested this to Hodges’ colleague, the first justification was: You can’t send people who are from all over the Midwest off onto dark country roads.

But that’s precisely what was happening one exit back where they were diverting traffic.

A trooper said reversing traffic is unheard of. I hope he can encounter a state senator this week who did just such a thing on the Indiana Toll Road a few years back with state patrol guidance.

I was sent some materials about turnpike safety procedures, and none of them address how to deal with drivers in situations like Thanksgiving evening.

That is one of the consistencies of my conversations with various officials: This was an unprecedented closure.

It’s now a precedent. Hopefully there is a better plan next time that is suitable for great weather like that night, and horrible weather like Friday night.

Find a way to safely move 2,000 or so people along — even if you need training from the Ohio State stadium crew.

Or at least communicate to drivers their fate and ensure the most vulnerable out there know they’re being protected.

Doing nothing was a decision, and many of us out there disagreed with it.

I guess the NFL once disagreed that it had a concussion problem, too.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.


1NoBS(2819 comments)posted 2 years, 7 months ago

I'd agree with turning traffic around and pointing them back to the previous exit, but in no way would I condone allowing them to drive past the accident before it's cleared up.

But, since we're looking at other states, and how problems are handled, let's look at the mountainous western states. Those residents don't allow their cars to get below a half tank of gas if they have to travel outside of 'civilized areas.' They're prepared to be delayed - they carry blankets, snacks and water. In the mountainous states, if conditions warrant (ie, the police think it's a good idea) you will stop and install your tire chains on your vehicle, or you will not travel on the public road through the mountain passes. Nobody cares if you're inconvenienced or get a smudge on your skirt.

One final thought - when Gov. Kasich gets his wish, and the Ohio Turnpike is in private hands as a for-profit operation, do you think the motoring public will be taken into consideration more or less than at present?

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2ytownsteelman(680 comments)posted 2 years, 7 months ago

Its good that someone who has a voice has had to endure one of these stoppages and is speaking against it.

I was once in a similar situation on the non toll portion of I-376. We were stopped up for a mile, and several started going through the crossover to turn around and head back to find a way around. Everything was going fine until some moron state police came by and blocked the crossover! The proper response would have been for him to direct traffic and help us all turn around if we wanted to.

These stupid policies have to be changed. Perhaps if the police treated the highways like the railroads treat their trackage; a get the mains clear at all costs mentality, then they would make better decisions. Time is important to people, and many of us travel the roads on time sensitive schedules. The police need to remember that they serve us. They are not our masters.

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3NoBS(2819 comments)posted 2 years, 7 months ago

Let me get this straight - the big-government haters, vindy and citizen alike, want the government (police) to come to their aid and help them.

How ironic.

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4cmrosko(19 comments)posted 2 years, 7 months ago

You make some good points. I was once stuck in a similar situation in the same general area of the turnpike that you were in. I wonder if this might have something to do with the local turnpike / highway officials. I'll probably always own an all wheel or 4 wheel drive vehicle and this is one of the reasons. I needed up putting my 4 wheel drive vehicle to use and found my own way out....yes and on back roads with the aid of my gps.

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5redeye1(5657 comments)posted 2 years, 7 months ago

When are you people going to get it. The turnpike commission doesn't really care if you are sitting in traffic for long periods of time.. All they want is your money. They once had a plan to alleviate this type of situation , but they never used it. WHY? no one knows, They had more excuses then Obama.

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6rickking123(331 comments)posted 2 years, 7 months ago

Very good column Todd. Interesting that you admit to going approximately 10 miles over the speed limit. Had you driven the speed limit you would have been farther back before the Fremont exit and you would have been able to exit the turnpike. Instead the speeding cost you 4 hours of just sitting there. Kind of ironic isn't it?

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7DSquared(1788 comments)posted 2 years, 7 months ago

Great viewpoint Todd. Actually, good common sense thought process. Unfortunately you spoke with a typical gub'mint bureaucrat, whose only concern is CYA. The methodical method of a controlled emptying of the Pike would never even enter the mind of a gub'mint employee. Thr proof is in the pudding. Thanks for the insight.

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