A 10-vehicle crash near the site of a fatal accident that ultimately killed four women in late November has sent 10 more people to the hospital.
A semi driver “looked down to pick up his tea” as he was approaching the construction zone near exit 23 on Interstate 55, where Illinois 143 intersects the highway. He struck another car, which caused a chain-reaction crash eventually involving 10 vehicles, according to Illinois State Police Trooper Calvin Dye Jr.
Three people were seriously injured and airlifted to St. Louis hospitals with life-threatening injuries, Dye said. Seven others were taken to hospitals with injuries that were not life-threatening, for a total of seven injured.
Police radio traffic called for four medical helicopters. The cars were scattered across the interstate, with the semi overturned in the median and one truck that rolled over into a barbed-wire fence along the side of the interstate.
Traffic was quickly backed up for at least five miles and then diverted to avoid the crash area. As of 4 p.m., northbound traffic was still being diverted to Interstate 70 and Illinois 4 to reach I-55 near Worden. Northbound I-55 was completely shut down for hours.
The driver of the semi, a 53-year-old man from Lewistown, was among the injured, but Dye said he admitted to having been briefly distracted reaching for the tea. The investigation is ongoing, and Dye said they had not determined whether charges would be filed.
Dye pointed out that while there is a strong push to avoid distracted driving, people should not think that only electronics can distract from safe driving. Food, noise and changing the radio station are all things that can distract a driver at a critical moment, he said.
The crash is very close to the spot of a Nov. 21 accident that killed four women, including two from Staunton and one from Alhambra, when a semi crashed into stalled and stopped vehicles traveling southbound.
The semi was driven by Mohamed Yussuf Jama, 53, of Greeley, Colorado. That crash is still under investigation, the Illinois State Police have said.
The Illinois Department of Transportation closed one lane of I-55 in each direction for construction in that stretch between the Edwardsville and Hamel exits in late October. IDOT representatives could not be immediately reached on Friday afternoon.
But Hamel Mayor Larry Bloemker said as soon as the construction merge began, accidents started to happen. He said there was a “near-miss” with an extended passenger van carrying an Air Force band, and minor accidents are happening every day along with — by his count — at least six major accidents. The exact number of incidents since the construction zone went into effect was not immediately available.
“We have contacted IDOT and expressed our concerns,” Bloemker said. “We’re hoping that they find a solution.”
Beyond his concern for the safety of the interstate stretch near his town, Bloemker said, whenever accidents close down the highway, either IDOT or individual drivers’ GPS units tend to reroute the traffic through Hamel. It’s a small village, and their first responders are usually tied up assisting at the accident, so it leads to a traffic mess in the village, he said.
Dye said that he isn’t sure that there’s any direct connection between the construction and the series of accidents, but that distraction and speeding are almost always “the main contributing factor.”
The construction is expected to go through September 2018. Signs warning of the upcoming construction start three miles before the lane restriction, and a radar display flashes vehicle speeds at the beginning of the construction zone.