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Death toll in Wisconsin pileup rises to 10

Ten people were killed in a fiery inferno that involved more than three dozen vehicles.

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A massive crash on an Interstate 43 in Cedar Grove, Wisconsin, results in deaths, injuries (October 11)
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CEDAR GROVE, Wisconsin (CNN) -- Dense fog combined with excessive speed triggered a deadly traffic accident Friday morning, killing 10 people in a fiery inferno that involved more than three dozen vehicles and burned some of them beyond recognition.

While the investigation into the crash is continuing, Sgt. John Jones of the Wisconsin Highway Patrol said that at the time of the pileup, vehicles were still traveling down Interstate 43 at normal highway speeds despite nearly zero visibility -- pointing to a combination of driver error and weather as the likely cause of the tragedy.

"This scene looked like a junkyard fire," he said. At least 38 vehicles were involved at one major crash scene, where a fire erupted, and at least three smaller crash areas, Jones said.

Although visibility in the area was less than one-eighth of a mile, Jones said, "We still had vehicles that were traveling through there at more than 65 miles per hour."

"Witnesses said that as the collisions began to occur, vehicles passed by at highway speeds and then became involved in the crash," he said.

In addition to the 10 fatalities, 36 people were injured, said Chris Henning, the EMS commander at the scene. Of those, seven were injured critically and one seriously, while the rest had minor injuries. Some of the injured were burned in the fire, he said.

Authorities have begun the process of trying to identify the victims, some of whom were burned beyond recognition. Jones said all of the victims appeared to be adults.

Vehicle identification numbers and license plates, and possibly DNA, will be used in the identification process. Only two wallets belonging to victims were recovered, Jones said.

Police first started receiving 911 calls about the crash at 7:19 a.m., Jones said. The pileup started in the southbound lanes of Interstate 43 -- the main thoroughfare between Milwaukee and Green Bay -- and then spread to the northbound lanes.

The pileup occurred on a rural stretch of the interstate south of Sheboygan, about 50 miles north of Milwaukee.

"In my 21 years [of law enforcement], this is the most horrific scene I have ever seen, and I'm sure that it is for many of the people there," Sheboygan County Sheriff Loni Koenig said.

The pileup closed a six-mile stretch of the interstate between Highway 32 and Highway D throughout most of the day. The northbound lanes reopened Friday evening, and the southbound lanes were expected to reopen by Saturday morning, Jones said.

Before reopening, fuel and chemicals spilled in the crash will be removed from the roadway, and highway crews will come in to patch areas of the pavement damaged by the fire, he said.

When the sun burned off the fog at the scene in the southbound lane, the roadway and shoulders of the highway were littered with a tangle of mangled metal and smoldering, burned-out hulks of vehicles.

Onlookers -- including people worried that their loved ones may have been involved and in the crash -- lined fences just off the roadway.

Jones said the nature of the crash was having a profound effect on the firefighters, law enforcement officers and emergency personnel, but added that their first concern was for the victims.

"We'll band together ourselves after that," he said. "This is not going to settle for some of us for some time. It's going to take a period of time to come to terms with what occurred here today."

Injured were taken to St. Mary's Hospital-Ozaukee in Mequon, Valley View Medical Center in Plymouth, and St. Nicholas Hospital and Memorial Medical Center, both in Sheboygan.

Jones said Friday's accident was the deadliest ever on a Wisconsin highway, eclipsing a 1937 wreck in which nine people died.

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