Posted: Tuesday, September 14, 1999 | 6:37 a.m.

Massive I-270 accident leaves tangled, burning wreckage

Jim Rackwitz (Post-Dispatch) View of accident that occured about 8AM on Monday, 13 Sep 99 in the westbound lanes of I-270 near Graham road. The interstate, both east and west bound lanes, were shut down.
Dense morning-rush traffic on Interstate 270 piled up in a spectacular crash Monday in Florissant, burning four vehicles in 70-foot flames and killing three people.

Police said they were amazed that more people weren't killed.

Authorities identified the dead late Monday night as Robert L. Ficke, 54, of St. Louis, Billie J. Eldridge, 26, of Maryville, and Michael J. Trout, 41, of Alton.

Both directions of the highway near Graham Road were closed until evening as salvage crews untangled the wreckage of one large truck and 15 other vehicles, and Missouri Highway Patrol officers worked to figure out exactly what had happened.

Police said the driver of a tractor-trailer rig barreled into slowed traffic on the westbound lanes at 7:25 a.m., crushing one car and slamming into two others. It finally halted in exploding fireballs of gasoline, diesel fuel, tires and paper products in its trailer.

The Highway Patrol identified the trucker as Isaac Stewart, 50, of Chicago. He was not listed as injured. There was no immediate report of whether he would be charged.

All three of the dead were in separate vehicles struck directly by Stewart's 1998 Freightliner truck, police said. Trout was in a 1991 Honda, Ficke in a 1989 GMC Safari van and Ficke in a 1996 Ford.

Six people were injured. Only one, Shonda O. Ambers, 25, of Berkeley, was seriously hurt. She was involved in a secondary accident in the eastbound lanes and underwent surgery for internal injuries at DePaul Health Center in Bridgeton.

Listed as moderately injured were Bradley S. Nelson, 26, of Granite City, Diane L. Sprous, 50, of Granite City and Lisa A. Lewis, 37, of Alton. Those shown with minor injuries were Katherine M. Valley, 32, of Glen Carbon and Timothy C. Elam, 26, of Godfrey.

Some motorists were trapped in smashed vehicles; others tried in vain to help, or fled the heat. A few managed to get others out of danger.

"I've never seen anything like this in my 38 years as a police officer," explained Florissant Police Chief Robert Lowery Sr., who said he was surprised more weren't killed. "Vehicles were smashed down, totally demolished. It looked like an airplane crash."

Sgt. Terry St. Clair, of the Highway Patrol, said the scene reminded him of a war movie.

Cindy Pierce, an employee of State Farm Insurance Co., said she was heading for work along I-270 when cars began to zig-zag and crash into each other.

"When I saw the semi, that was when I heard the screams. People started running to get away from the fire," she said.

Pierce, who lives in Glen Carbon, said she got out of her car and tried to get closer to the damaged cars. Three car lengths ahead she saw a red car that looked like it had been run over by a truck. A man was inside it.

"I heard him say, 'I can't breathe,' " Pierce said. "That's when a bunch of people came up and stood around his car. There was nothing we could do. He was trapped."

Pierce added, "I turned around and went back to my car. I sat there and cried for about 10 minutes, until police came."

Her husband is Rick Pierce, one of the reporters providing information for this story.

Glenn Thomas, who lives about 500 feet from the scene, said he originally thought the explosions were caused by an earthquake.

"There was a couple of explosions," he said. "It was like somebody dropped a hand grenade. You could feel the force of it. All the way back in my driveway we felt the wave of heat."

Gary Warden, a truck driver, initially tried to put out the fire with his extinguisher: "It didn't do any good," he said.

Florissant police Officer Bill Reichmuth, driving east on Interstate 270, was the first emergency worker to arrive.

"It looked like piles of tangled vehicles, close to a dozen," said Reichmuth, 33. "I ran across the median and found one man trapped in his car, badly injured. He seemed to be barely alive."

The man later died.

"A nurse stopped, and we were doing what we could," Reichmuth added, "but then there was an explosion. Another trucker tried to put out the fire with an extinguisher but couldn't. Then there were two or three more explosions."

Reichmuth found the driver of the tractor-trailer, who did not appear to be injured but was dazed.

"When we realized there was a van under (the tractor-trailer), it gave us a sick feeling," Reichmuth said. "We didn't know how many people were inside.

"It was a terrible, terrible thing," he said. "It's a helpless feeling when you witness something like that and there's little you can do."

Jim O'Gorman of Florissant was one motorist who walked away from the accident.

"I was stopped next to the median and then, all of a sudden, you heard crunch, pop, boom, bam, and I got hit in the rear at least two times," he said.

O'Gorman and another man pulled a woman out a window of her vehicle. "She was hysterical but OK," he said.

Claudia Netter drove up behind the accident. She initially believed her husband, who was on the road ahead of her, might be caught in the pileup.

"I just freaked out," she said. "I got out of my car and started running down the highway. They said the truck was going to blow."

When she called her husband on her cell phone, she found out he was OK.

"She was hysterical," Carl Netter said later. "She was talking about cars burning up and exploding."

Rick Ruhrmann, deputy chief of the Florissant Valley Fire Protection District, said flames shot 70 feet into the air.

The accident touched off traffic jams throughout the area after authorities closed I-270 both ways and several surrounding thoroughfares. Authorities worked through the afternoon clearing the wreckage. The interstate was reopened late Monday afternoon.

A report on the details of the crash probably won't be done for weeks, said St. Clair, of the Highway Patrol. Investigators have to unravel the sequence of events.

Traffic usually slows down in that area during the morning rush because of an unusual interchange west of the accident site. Westbound drivers trying to get onto southbound I-170 must merge across the highway to the left - not to the right as with an ordinary exit.

"It can be confusing if you're not familiar with the area," said Officer Reichmuth.

Some witnesses said they'll always remember the horror.

Cynthia Benard, a teacher's assistant riding on a school bus nearby, said the scene looked like a movie. "There were cars just smashed down like pancakes. It was like a junkyard, how they were smashed down."

Many students at nearby St. Thomas Aquinas-Mercy High School, on Dunn Road, watched all morning as firefighters fought the flames, and police officers surveyed the remains.

"This is not something you forget," said Bobby James, 18, a senior. "When it happened, the whole first period class just stopped."

Later, tow trucks removing the charred wrecks passed through the school parking lot to avoid running over fire hoses that stretched from the school to pumpers on the interstate.

Principal Paul Frein kept shooing away curious students who stopped to gawk between classes. In the morning, and again in the afternoon, school officials asked students to pray for the accident victims.


By Bill Bryan, Rick Pierce And
of The Post-Dispatch © 1999 St. Louis Post-Dispatch.