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Turnpike needs a better plan

Register • Dec 11, 2013 at 7:02 PM

Todd Franko is the former managing editor at the Sandusky Register and was on the Ohio Turnpike on Thanksgiving night when two people were killed in a crash. This column originally appeared in the Youngstown Vindicator, his current newspaper.

Thanksgiving evening was a horrible scene on the Ohio Turnpike.

A Kent man’s reckless driving at speeds in excess of 120 mph came to a fiery and fatal end between Sandusky and Toledo.

And in the worst of scenarios, the fatalities were two people from Toledo who were innocent victims of the other driver, 24-year-old Andrew Gans.

Gans survived, and is now in Sandusky County Jail on a $1 million bond, facing two counts of aggravated vehicular homicide.

I had the fortune and misfortune of being part of the scene.

Fortune in that, about 15 minutes before the accident, Gans flew by me. I was driving almost 80 mph, and out of nowhere in my mirror came Gans. He was gone as quickly as he came. So fast, I could not make out the type of car. When he passed, my car shook in his wake.

A trooper passed me several minutes later — but nowhere close to the speed of Gans. A few minutes later, traffic ground to a halt just west of the Fremont exit. Gans covered 62 miles in 26 minutes, troopers said.

The trooper lights were distinct from the fiery orange of the van fire. More rescue lights would come past me as about 15-20 response vehicles sped along the inside and outside shoulders of I-80 headed to the scene.

Read more of Todd Franko's columns from the Youngstown Vindicator HERE

About 2 miles of drivers sat parked on the turnpike. Based on the number of people evident in my 10th-of-a-mile neighborhood out there, I have guessed about 2,000 people total; could’ve been 3,000; could’ve been 1,000.

We. Sat. With. Nothing. For four hours. That’s where the misfortune begins.

Now before you rise up with a “How dare you, there were fatalities and you weren’t one of them,” please note that:

A) I am grateful to have not been a fatal statistic and recognize that, had I been in the left lane instead of the middle, I could have been.

B) I recognize that tending to the accident was first priority. All rescue vehicles were on scene in the first 45 minutes. For the next 3 hours and 15 minutes, the road shoulders were absent of rescue vehicles.

When you trap 2,000 or so people for too long of a period, two things are certain:

Some of them in time will become their own casualty for health reasons.

Some will take matters into their own hands.

Both happened.

Nothing on the websites of the turnpike or the Ohio State Highway Patrol offered any advisement to those of us stuck. The turnpike site did warn oncoming westbound traffic that they were being redirected at Ohio 4.

While most of us managed fine, would you want your teen son or elderly mom stuck in such a situation — especially when there were options? That’s where I enjoyed some healthy debate this week with turnpike, OSHP and other state officials.

I’m not quite sure the turnpike folks were receptive.

But I’m emboldened by histories such as airlines once thinking little about stranding passengers on tarmacs for hours; the NFL never believing it had a concussion problem; law enforcement never thinking you could mobilize masses when children were kidnapped; and stadiums never pondering ending alcohol sales before the game ended.

You think about better ways to exist when you’re absolutely powerless to do anything about your situation — which we were.

That night, a handful of us would get out of our cars every 30 minutes or so and share our latest info from radio, tweets or websites. What was clear to us was that we could not go forward, and we accepted that: It’s a horrific human loss that is also a crime scene.

What we could not understand was the lack of a plan to reverse us and allow us to exit just one mile backward to the Fremont exit. We could see it; we could hear it; it was a perfectly clear 40-degree night; we just had no one allowing us to go there.

Turnpike boss Rick Hodges was quick to return my call this week, and was polite in our differences of opinion, which for me came down to two key points:

2,000 of us were left with no indication as to our fate. How long would we be there? Two hours? Four hours? Six hours?

The turnpike has a website, a Facebook page and huge trucks with huge signboards that can land Captain Kirk. Yet no attempt was made to communicate to the people they essentially had complete control over.

In Boston last spring, city residents were in a panic as the bombing brothers sped through town and had a shootout with police. When it was finally over, police sensed the need to let people know immediately it was over, and they Tweeted the news instantly, and a city breathed.

The Fremont exit was right there for all of us. Three hours earlier, the shoulders were viable enough for firetrucks, ambulances and more to access the accident. They could have been perfect routes to reverse drivers out of there, too.

Our group looked at the exit frequently, and pondered a plan. But as I told many people this week, none of us wanted to be “that guy.” I kept thinking: “It’s so easy, a turnpike crew will show up any minute.” They never did.

Hodges said it’s a safety issue, that it’s better to just lock everyone down to ensure there aren’t more casualties.

Some of the 2,000 became casualties.

Halfway into the third hour of our stay, two ambulances came barreling down the shoulder. They stopped at a car in front of me where a guy was having a diabetic issue. He got hauled away in one ambulance.

People were relieving themselves all about the highway (easier for the men; not so easy for the ladies). Cars ran out of gas or killed their batteries as they ran them frequently for heat.

One friend who was stuck half a mile behind me was among a group who U-turned in the barrier split and headed down the eastbound lanes. Turnpike officials closed that off.

Several drivers drove the wrong way down the shoulder. One guy drove by me in reverse along the shoulder.

I told Hodges that if navigating traffic in that tight an area is so dangerous, which Hodges explained, how does America fill about 80 stadiums every Saturday and Sunday in September with either baseball or football fans — some drunk, some banner-waving, all of them pre-occupied — and it’s generally deemed safe and normal. The turnpike was a stadium parking lot, essentially.

Our group devised that a team of 10 brightly dressed and well-lit staffers, slicing the traffic a 10th of a mile at a time, starting closest to the exit, could have emptied the 2 miles in short time. We accepted that not all drivers would want to leave the road, and semis might not have the flexibility.

When I suggested this to Hodges’ colleague, the first justification was: You can’t send people who are from all over the Midwest off onto dark country roads.

But that’s precisely what was happening one exit back where they were diverting traffic.

A trooper said reversing traffic is unheard of. I hope he can encounter a state senator this week who did just such a thing on the Indiana Toll Road a few years back with state patrol guidance.

I was sent some materials about turnpike safety procedures, and none of them address how to deal with drivers in situations like Thanksgiving evening.

That is one of the consistencies of my conversations with various officials: This was an unprecedented closure.

It’s now a precedent. Hopefully there is a better plan next time that is suitable for great weather like that night, and horrible weather like Friday night.

Find a way to safely move 2,000 or so people along — even if you need training from the Ohio State stadium crew.

Or at least communicate to drivers their fate and ensure the most vulnerable out there know they’re being protected.

Doing nothing was a decision, and many of us out there disagreed with it.

I guess the NFL once disagreed that it had a concussion problem, too.

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