Nearly one year after the most calamitous traffic accident in state history occurred on Interstate 75 just outside Ringgold, a special team of Georgia State Patrol investigators has concluded its investigation, finding the 87-vehicle pile-up on March 14, 2002, was the result of unusual weather conditions.
“Working with the National Weather Service, our Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team has determined that the rapidly deteriorating weather conditions on the day of this chain reaction collision became the most significant factor in the GSP crash investigation,” said Col. George Ellis, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Safety. “The SCRT team report concludes that what has been classified as a weather ‘anomaly’ did not allow motorists time to react when they suddenly entered a thick bank of fog on Interstate 75 in Catoosa County.”
Capt. Carlton Stallings, Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team commander with the Georgia State Patrol, along with other members of the GSP and local officials, held a news conference Thursday at the Catoosa County Courthouse in Ringgold to release findings of the GSP’s investigation into the massive accident that killed five motorists.
The GSP compiled an exhaustive 150-page report detailing the case, Stallings said.
Although investigators initially believed that speed and vehicles following too close were contributing factors, their investigation revealed that those were not factors in the incident, Stallings said.
Stallings played a copy of the dashboard video of GSP Trooper Monty Chastain stopping a speeding motorist on I-75 northbound about 7:50 a.m., just south of where the first wreck occurred.
Motorists seen on the tape minutes before the crash were calculated to be traveling between 58 mph and the posted speed limit of 65 mph along that stretch of I-75, he said.
“While the SCRT team conducted a painstaking investigation of every aspect of the Catoosa County fog wreck, the most important piece of evidence they found was the videotape, which actually captured the weather conditions on that stretch of I-75 as the deadly fog bank set in,” Stallings said.
The video reveals a dense fog bank rolling rapidly south from the north, as Chastain talks with the stopped motorist. The trooper is heard radioing dispatch that visibility is only 50 feet, as the fog thickens.
Minutes later, the sound of vehicles crashing is heard as Chastain and the motorist quickly pull off the interstate’s shoulder and onto higher ground.
“SCRT investigators now believe that trooper Chastain’s very presence in the emergency lane with his blue lights operational caused passing motorists to slow down, and most likely prevented the collision in the fog bank from being even more severe than it was,” Col. Ellis said.
The pile-up was actually a chain reaction of two wrecks, which occurred first in the northbound lanes, followed by two lesser accidents in the southbound lanes, Harris said.
Sgt. Richard Harris, lead investigator of the SCRT, pointed out on the tape how the crash began. From slow motion footage, he singled out a beige pickup passing by that was the first vehicle involved in the crash.
Harris said the driver, encountering vehicles slowing ahead, pulled to the side and was soon struck by a tractor-trailer that jackknifed in the road, blocking any vehicles from getting around it.
“That’s what led to the chain of events on the northbound lanes,” Harris said. “The description we heard from most of the motorists was that it looked like a white sheet of fog.”
All five fatalities occurred in the northbound lanes, Harris said. Each was a motorist in a passenger vehicle that collided with a tractor-trailer, he said.
In all, 87 vehicles — including 24 tractor-trailers — were directly involved in the accident.
Stallings said that in 30 years as a state trooper, he has never seen weather conditions like those that occurred that day.
“I have never seen fog this thick and concentrated into such a small area,” Stallings said. “The temperature and the dew point collided.”
No criminal charges
Herbert E. “Buzz” Franklin, district attorney for the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, said no criminal charges will be filed in the case.
“The question we had was causation,” he said. “The causation here is weather-related and not driver-related. We will not be pursuing charges against the drivers.
“There is no evidence of speeding playing any significant role in the collisions,” he said. “In fact, due to the presence of Trooper Chastain, many of the vehicles entering the fog bank on the northbound side had slowed.”
Franklin said blood and urine tests taken from all motorists involved in the accident yielded the presence of marijuana in the system of three motorists. No charges will be filed against the individuals because a case cannot be proven that the drug impaired their driving abilities, he said.
The district attorney said there were several instances of unrelated traffic infractions at the accident scene that will likely be prosecuted as civil cases in Catoosa Probate Court.
One week after the accident occurred, two tractor-trailer operators were fined by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for falsifying information in their driver logbooks. No additional charges are expected against the drivers, Franklin said.
GSP personnel, local law enforcement and emergency responders worked for 15 hours gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses and clearing debris before traffic was restored in each direction of the interstate.
Stallings recognized the Catoosa County Sheriff’s Department, Catoosa Coroner Vanita Hullander, and the hundreds of emergency personnel from a 50-mile radius who responded to the scene.
“(Management of) this wreck and investigation was a concerted effort of a lot of people,” he said. “It came together very well.”
The GSP investigation’s findings were compiled into a report that will be used by state crash reconstructors in case of a future wreck of this scale, Stallings said.
A meeting held in Ringgold in May 2002 by local, state and federal officials determined the accident was not preventable