Two MedStar paramedics just happened to be on the North Freeway overpass Thursday morning when a 133-vehicle chain-reaction crash happened before their eyes.
The accident killed six people and injured dozens more.
Paramedics James Ward and Cody Riley were parked on the shoulder of the southbound freeway main lanes from an earlier accident on the slippery highway.
“We train for this from day one. We train for a mass casualty incident. But you never expect to actually live one out, especially one of this scale,” Riley said.
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James Ward was at the wheel. He’s a five-year veteran at MedStar with 12 years of emergency medical service experience.
“I saw the initial sparks when the first car hit the barrier, and that jackknifed the 18-wheeler and it just set off a chain reaction from there,” Ward said.
The barrier was the concrete wall between the main lanes of the freeway and the southbound toll express lanes where the collisions occurred. Some of the wrecked vehicles tipped over the barrier.
Flashing lights seen in the background of witness cell phone video were the lights from their ambulance.
Their presence on the scene at the time helps explain witness reports of very fast emergency response. Ward could be heard on MedStar radios calling for help within seconds.
The two paramedics waited in their vehicle until authorities blocked traffic and made it safe to cross the main lanes and treat the victims.
They said the crash was over and the road clear in less than five minutes but waiting for it to end felt like an eternity.
“It seemed like it took forever for those cars to stop hitting. And then when it stopped and we got out it was an eerie feeling of what just happened. And then medic mode kicked in and it’s like, we’ve got to get to work,” Ward said.
They began climbing in the wreckage, looking for injured drivers.
“We started looking through cars, looking through windows, asking, you know, thumbs up, thumbs down,” Riley said.
A huge response of Fort Worth Fire and Police was quickly there to help.
Though it was extremely cold, the paramedics said most people were patient, urging them to treat the most seriously injured first.
“A lot of people were happy to see us,” Ward said. “For the most part, people were trying to get out of the wreckage themselves.”
They made two trips to hospitals, the first with a more seriously wounded patient, the second with several people in the ambulance.
Since they were on that road in the winter weather, the paramedics had a good assessment of the conditions. They said the ice developed quickly.
Riley drove the trips to the hospital from the scene.
“This was a freak accident,” he said. “There were hazards in the road. Coming down from the blind hill was black ice. Once the first initial impact, the impact was unavoidable at that point.”
Ward initially drove to that elevated highway.
“It hadn’t been too bad responding until we got into that area. It was mainly on that overpass. You couldn’t really use brakes. It could have been treated. It could have been untreated. You couldn’t know at that point the way the rain came in. It was very light and very fast. It just froze over quickly,” Ward said.
Fort Worth Police are investigating circumstances that led to the crash, including pre-treatment of the pavement, drivers' speed and weather conditions. Cell phone videos help provide evidence.
The paramedics who must respond in all sorts of weather have advice for other drivers.
“With conditions like this, if you can stay home, do,” Riley said.
That section of roadway is maintained by North Tarrant Express.
Spokesman Robert Hinkle issued a statement.
"The entire NTE family joins the greater community in sorrow over the events of Thursday morning. We will make every resource available to Fort Worth Police and Fire and assist in any way as we all process this tragedy. Further, we are working with authorities as they investigate this incident."
"Our crews employed Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) approved processes and began pre-treatment of the corridor well ahead of the storm earlier this week. In the hours and days following the accident, the North Tarrant Express 35W road safety teams, together with Fort Worth emergency responders, worked to clear the interstate corridor and identify damages and any potential safety issues related to the accident. The road safety team is coordinating with the City of Fort Worth and TxDOT to ensure all safety precautions have been made as the corridor reopens to traffic," the statement said.
Southbound main lane of the North Freeway reopened around 5:30pm Friday but north and southbound express lanes remained closed late Friday.