Third victim of 53-car I-96 pileup identified
Fowlerville — Vitalii Stelmakh, a twenty eight year old semitrailer driver out of Hollywood, Florida, was identified Monday morning as the third casualty in a 53-car pile-up Thursday that closed westbound Interstate ninety six near Fowlerville Road for more than twelve hours.
An Ann Arbor duo, Homer Leon Tew, Sixty-nine, and Theresa O’Connor Tew, 62, also died in the crash. The Tews were killed when their vehicle was crushed inbetween two semi-trucks shortly before ten a.m., Lt. Eric Sanborn of the Livingston County Sheriff’s Office confirmed Friday morning.
Eleven other motorists were rushed to local hospitals with non-life menacing injuries.
The fatalities and injuries came after a unexpected snow squall consumed vehicles and erased all visibility along the I-96 spread near Fowlerville. The flurries disappeared, exposing what one motorist called “a wall of cars.” Black ice prevented startled drivers from stopping in time. There was nowhere to go, many survivors said.
The crash began when two drivers heading westbound on I-96 lost control of their cars after blustery conditions turned into a unexpected “whiteout,” Michigan State Police Sgt. Jeff Munoz said Thursday. Before long, dozens of vehicles joined the pileup.
Survivors who did not need medical attention were transported to the Fowlerville Police Department, which served as a place for police to conduct extra interviews and as a reunification point for people who were being picked up by others. Tables overflowed with food donated by local businesses.
Some motorists there counted themselves fortunate to be alive.
Babatunde Oyewumi, 46, of Redford Township suffered a gash to the back of his head, which was packaged in bright white gauze Thursday afternoon, along with a sprained jaw, several injuries and a cracked tooth.
“You couldn’t see; everything became dark,” Oyewumi said of the whiteout. “I thank God that I am alive.”
Oyewumi’s wifey arrived to pick him up shortly before Two:30 p.m., with their 15-month-old daughter asleep in the backseat.
“God is good,” said Oyewumi calmly, as he hugged his wifey outside the station.
Sanborn on Thursday said the weather was to blame for the severity of the crash, however motorists might have been driving swifter than conditions permitted.
“Everything is under investigation” after the massive crash, Sanborn said. “It’s too early to figure out any kind of fault.”
Jordan Dale, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said the area of the crash was experiencing a “snow squall” that originated from Lake Michigan and headed east. In snow squalls, a half-inch of snow can fall in just a half-hour’s time.
The crash covered several hundred yards, including at least nine semitrailers and twenty seven cars, and drew very first responders from about twenty agencies from Livingston and Ingham counties.
“There were a lot of people with very severe injuries,” said Bradley Strader, 55, a senior transportation planner from Beverly Hills who was in the crash. “A lot of carnage.”
Two passenger cars, one crimson and one a dark color, were unrecognizable, smashed inbetween two semitrailers. Dozens of emergency vehicles were sitting on either side of the pileup with lights blazing, as emergency personnel assessed the scene.
Strader was commuting westbound on I-96 at the time of the crash in a rented Chrysler 200.
“I was traveling westbound to Lansing with a co-worker,” he said. “There had been a whiteout earlier, as that part of ninety six has a tendency to do. I came up over a hill and spotted an auto carrier jackknifing across the road. I thought I had time to stop, and tapped my brakes, but was driving on a unspoiled sheet of ice.
“I hit the guardrail, then the car in front of me. Then we were hit from behind,” Strader added. “Someone came up to the side of the car and said I had to get out — my gas tank was leaking, and a car behind me was on fire. They helped pull us out of the window.”
For Charlie Barrett, 30, of Canton Township, the pileup was simply unavoidable.
“The whiteout cleared, and I didn’t truly comprehend (what I was witnessing) at very first,” he said. “I instantaneously attempted to apply the brakes but it was very difficult (and) icy. . I attempted to brace for influence. I didn’t have many options of where to go.”
Barrett slammed into the back of another vehicle and instantaneously switched on his hazard lights as incoming cars crashed around him. He escaped serious injury aside from a sore elbow and cut to his arm.
But a nearby semitrailer was leaking gasoline onto the roadway, Barrett said. He and a dozen other motorists bailed from their vehicles to get away in case the truck caught fire.
“The fire department contained it,” Barrett said of the spill. Fortunately, there was no fire.
Bob Francoeur of Massachusetts, in town for business, also found himself in the middle of the pileup.
“I attempted to look for a path and ended up getting into the pile of cars,” said Francoeur, 62. “I got hit by about six more vehicles while I was sitting there. I just knew I had to hold on and hope for the best.
“There were cars all around me, blocking all four doors, and the electrical windows weren’t working. But the back window had gotten cracked out.”
Francoeur climbed over shattered glass, crawled out the back window, and stepped into a scene of good Samaritans, he said.
“All the mayhem happened and it got quiet, and then there were people running car by car, doing inventory to see if people were OK,” said Francoeur, who escaped with a few welts. “It was nice to see people doing good, without thinking about it. Just doing it.”