Hannah Matheny, 20, of Parma; Grzegorz Piwowarczyk, 42, of Palatine, Ill.; and Janice Robb, 66, of Schererville, Ind., died in the early-afternoon crash, according to the Highway Patrol.
Numerous people were injured, but even the Highway Patrol was awaiting the final tally more than 24 hours after the crash,Patrol Lt. Anne Ralston said.
“Many people were transported from the various crash scenes by fire and EMS crews,” Ralston said. “We are now working with them to identify all victims that were transported, obtain all of their information, obtain statements and link them with vehicles at the crash scenes”
Among the injured: Highway Patrol Trooper Andrew Clouser, 29, of the Milan post, who sustained serious injuries after he responded to the scene and became pinned between two vehicles. He’s now being treated in an intensive care unit at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo, Ralston said.
Drivers reported the first crash at about 1:25 p.m. Wednesday, just as a wintry squall slammed the area and created whiteout conditions.
It’s still unknown what spurred the initial collision, other than poor road conditions, Ralston said. It’s also unknown how long vehicles continued crashing into the pileup before authorities got the scene under control.
Troopers spent the majority of Thursday trying to untangle those details and reconstruct the mechanics of the crash.
“There is much legwork to do and we have been working on it all day” Ralston said.
Turnpike operations crews, meanwhile, had their hands full trying to sort out the mangled mess of cars and tractor-trailers.
At about 1:30 p.m. Thursday, at least a dozen tractor trailers remained at the scene, awaiting tow trucks, cleaning crews and Patrol investigators. Two lanes of traffic slithered down the highway, flanked by debris on one side and mangled rigs on the other.
Investigators have determined there were two main crash zones resulting in the majority of damage.
The first crash was near milepost 102, just west of Ohio 101 in Townsend Township. A chain-reaction soon followed, with an estimated 16 vehicles involved. It was in this area Matheny, a passenger in a Ford Focus, and Piwowarczyk, a semitrailer driver, were killed.
About a mile back, near marker 102, there was a second chain-reaction crash. About 20 vehicles became entangled, including a Chevy Venture in which Robb was a passenger, troopers said.
The resulting traffic jam left some drivers stranded into the wee hours of Thursday morning. Troopers worked their way through the vehicles during that timeframe, making sure those who were stuck had enough fuel and heat, Ralston said.
“Multiple troopers were on scene through the night checking on motorists’ safety and well-being” Ralston said.
Turnpike traffic was rerouted via U.S. 20 overnight and almost all day Thursday.
In Bellevue, Clyde and Fremont, officials were left contending with packed roadways as a result. Sandusky County Chief Deputy Bruce Hirt said his deputies had responded to multiple crashes along U.S. 20, including three jack-knifed semitrailers.
Not until about 8 p.m. did all Turnpike lanes reopen and traffic begin to flow freely once again, Turnpike officials said.
And while the Turnpike crash was certainly the most severe incident Wednesday, it was far from the only weather-induced collision in the region.
Troopers in Erie and Ottawa counties responded to 16 other crashes, while troopers at the Fremont post tended to 16 crashes in Sandusky and Seneca counties, dispatchers said. In Huron County, troopers handled 14 additional crashes, dispatchers said.
These tallies do not include reports of vehicles that slid off the road or became stuck in the snow.
In Erie and Ottawa counties alone, dispatchers logged about 100 incidents involving vehicles hung up in whiteout conditions. At one point, Ottawa County officials shut down Ohio 2 from Ohio 163 to Ohio 53, while Erie County officials shut down portions of Cleveland Road.