The Highland Police Department handled 21 accidents in a 24-hour period, Friday to Saturday night as freezing rain coated the area with a sheet of ice.
“Friday night was, as you can imagine, a crazy, crazy time,” said Highland Police Chief Terry Bell.
Thirteen of those accidents were in a two-hour stretch — from 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday — as freezing rain formed black ice on area roadways.
“We were instantly overloaded,” Bell said.
Bell said every police car and every ambulance were deployed to handle the influx of calls.
“We were running call to call,” Bell said.
Highland EMS Chief Brian Wilson said he called in off-duty paramedics to staff a fourth ambulance during the worst of the storm. Normally, the city has three ambulances on duty at one time.
“It froze instantly and caused instant chaos,” Wilson said.
Wilson said the four ambulance crews responded to 14 weather-related incidents in the Highland service area, which also includes the St. Rose, St. Jacob, Marine, Grantfork, and Highland-Pierron fire districts, as well as the city of Highland. Wilson said most were vehicle accidents. One was for a man who slipped and fell on the ice, hitting his head. Highland EMS also had two non-storm related calls during the same time period.
Wilson said only one accident to which Highland EMS responded involved serious injury. It happened on Illinois Route 4, near Interstate 70. Wilson said the patient had “non-life-threatening, but serious” injuries and was transported to a St. Louis hospital.
None of the accidents Highland police responded to involved major injury, Bell said.
Illinois State Trooper Calvin Dye Jr. said highways all over the metro-east on Friday night and Saturday morning were treacherous.
“Chaos is an understatement,” Dye said.
From 4 p.m. on Friday to 3 a.m. on Saturday, state police in the region received 475 calls for service, with 298 of those being for crashes. About half of those were serious, Dye said.
Dye said there were traffic problems across the region. Trailers jackknifed in the icy weather and drivers abandoned stuck vehicles on roadways, Dye said. Some metro-east residents reported that their commutes Friday evening took hours. At some points, traffic was stopped on multiple interstates and state highways.
“One of our dispatchers had been working here for 32 years, and she said she has never seen anything like this,” Dye said.
Madison County Sheriff John Lakin said his department received 30 calls for traffic crashes, some involving multiple vehicles.
There were so many calls for service, ambulance districts could not even provide mutual aid to one another, because they all had too many calls of their own.
“There was not ambulance to be found anywhere in the county,” said Wilson, Highland’s EMS chief. “There were all out and all running call to call.”
At one point, State Police asked that motorists just get off the roadways and not travel.
There was one fatality in Madison County in accident over the weekend.
Rebecca Morgan, 20, of Alton was behind the wheel of her 2002 Isuzu sport utility vehicle headed south on Interstate 255 near Pontoon Beach when she hit a slick spot and left the roadway, according to Illinois State Police.
The crash occurred about 3 p.m. Saturday. The highway was shut down following the accident.
Morgan crossed the median and struck a northbound 2017 Dodge Ram pickup on Interstate 255. Morgan was pronounced dead at the scene.
The pickup driver was taken to a local hospital with serious, but not life threatening injuries, Dye said.
A spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation said crews were treating roads well before the arrival of Friday’s freezing rain.
Crews were out Friday morning, in advance of the storm, IDOT spokesman Brian Williamsen said.
But weather conditions made it difficult and dangerous for trucks to cover roads during the course of the storm.
“Our crews were out before and during the storm and continue to work to clear the roads,” Williamsen said Saturday morning.
He added, “Safety is a top priority at IDOT, and our crews work hard to keep the roads as safe as possible during winter storms.”
Reporters Joseph Bustos and Beth Hundsdorfer contributed to this story.