Some people, including many who sat in the backup for hours, were left wondering why it took authorities more than 10 hours Monday to reopen southbound Interstate 5 near DuPont after a fiery wreck that left a man dead.
Washington State Patrol spokesman Guy Gill provided the answers Tuesday: The location of the wreck, the fact it involved a fatality and the large amount of debris generated combined to delay authorities’ efforts to get traffic flowing again on the state’s main north-south artery.
“This was a big crash,” Gill said. “It just takes time.”
Troopers were no closer Tuesday to determining what caused the wreck, which happened about 10:15 a.m. when a man lost control of his northbound pickup, crossed the median, hit a box truck and slammed head-on into a tractor-trailer, killing the driver of that rig and prompting the long-term closure of part of the interstate.
The pickup driver was in stable condition in a local hospital and facing surgery. Investigators had not been able to speak to him about what happened, Gill said. There was no evidence at the scene that the driver was impaired by drugs or alcohol, but troopers were awaiting the results of blood tests and an interview with the man before drawing any conclusions, Gill said.
He added it’s possible the man suffered a medical incident of some kind just before the wreck.
“We’ll turn over every stone,” Gill said.
The man lost control of his truck, which was pulling a rental trailer, while traveling north near Mounts Road. The pickup crossed the median and hit a southbound box truck and then the tractor-trailer. The box truck and big rig both caught fire.
The tractor-trailer’s driver, 59-year-old Dale Weaver of Jamestown, Ohio, died at the scene. Two people in the box truck escaped without serious injury.
Traffic quickly began backing up after the crash, with the jam eventually leading into Tacoma nearly 10 miles away. Some drivers reported sitting on the freeway in stop-and-go traffic for as long as six hours before making it past the scene.
Where the collision occurred had a lot to do with it, Gill said. Traffic is always heavy on that stretch of I-5, he said, and there are few options for detouring around a crash there.
“That is our choke point in this area,” he said. “Think about it: Anyone traveling from Seattle or Tacoma to Olympia or points farther south takes I-5.”
Troopers diverted some traffic off the interstate and along a route that took southbound drivers through Yelm before reconnecting them with I-5 at points south, but it did little to alleviate congestion.
Complicating matters was the fact that the crash was a fatality, which essentially turned the freeway there into a large crime scene.
Investigators had to take measurements on both sides of the freeway, document the locations of all the vehicles involved and the debris field, interview witnesses and conduct other work, Gill said.
“We owe it to everyone involved — the drivers, their families, the public in general — to do a thorough investigation,” he said.
Once that was accomplished, investigators from the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office had to retrieve Weaver’s body.
“It’s a process,” Gill said.
Finally, crews had to be called in to remove the damaged vehicles, pick up debris and clean up fluids spilled on the road, he said.
Removing Weaver’s tractor-trailer was particularly difficult because it burned “to the ground,” Gill said.
“The tires burned away,” he said. “You could not even roll it.”
Troopers brought in a front-end loader, as many as seven tow trucks and a street sweeper to clear up all the debris, Gill said.
“There was diesel fuel, motor oil and other fluids on the roadway,” he said. “They had to put down sand and clean up a large amount of debris. It was a big job.”
Why the wait?
Several factors contributed to leave hundreds of drivers stalled for hours Monday, according to the Washington State Patrol:
• Heavy traffic.
• Few detour options.
• Fatality investigation — interviewing witnesses, taking measurements and documenting locations of vehicles and debris field.
• Retrieval of driver who died.
• Removal of damaged vehicles, including gutted tractor-trailer.
• Pickup of debris.
• Cleanup of spilled fluids on roadway.Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644 adam.lynn@ thenewstribune.com