There were crashes everywhere clogging Aroostook County’s main travel arteries Tuesday, and happening faster than emergency response agencies could get them cleared out.
High winds on Tuesday that came on the heels of a substantial snow storm on Monday caused whiteout conditions and slippery roads throughout Aroostook County, but especially in central areas. Several people were injured and police from several agencies were still sorting out the vehicles and crash details Wednesday.
Sections of Route 1 — the main artery from Houlton north — were closed for hours at a time. In one section near Bridgewater, vehicles were being escorted over a hill individually because there was only one lane open on the other side. Several people were injured, but there were no fatalities. A total of 25 crashes in 12 separate towns occurred, with several vehicles getting stuck in snow in addition, Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office said. The last crash occurred around 1 a.m. on Wednesday, according to Commander Joey Seeley.
“When you get these whiteout conditions, you get one vehicle stuck, then another comes from behind and hits it, or can’t stop and goes off the road,” Seeley said. “And it just snowballs from there.”
One of the largest was a 10-car pileup in Westfield, in which 14 people were involved and five were injured. Seeley said that there may have been an additional four vehicles that left the crash site before police arrived. A Fort Fairfield ambulance was called for transport, but the ambulance and the Presque Isle police Durango got stuck on the way, according to Presque Isle police.
Seven of the vehicle crashes — including the one in Westfield — resulted in the Maine Department of Transportation closing roads. The others were three in Presque Isle, and one each in Fort Fairfield, Easton and Chapman. All roads are reopened Wednesday.
“We had a lot of state agencies, municipal fire departments, ambulances,” Seeley said. “Everybody was pitching together to help, which I think we handled quite well overall, given the circumstances we were facing.”
It started early Tuesday for the Presque Isle Police Department with the first crash call coming in at 7 a.m. on Conant Road.
There were actually only four reportable crashes, it’s just that there were so many vehicles involved in each of them, Police Chief Laurie Kelly said.
An early in the day multiple vehicle crash on the Caribou Road kept first responders busy all day. And at last count, there were 17 vehicles involved, Kelly said, adding that as far as the police know, there were no major injuries in that pile-up. Caribou police and ambulance worked with Presque Isle.
“There was zero visibility,” Kelly said. “It was a whiteout and they kept crashing, one after the other. We were there all day.”
An ambulance was called to the multiple vehicle crash and while some people had aches and pains and no visible injuries, Kelly said they put people in an ambulance for safety.
By 7:25 a.m., the Aroostook County Sheriff wanted Presque Isle police to help divert traffic at a multiple vehicle crash on Cambridge Road, but the police vehicle got stuck on the way. Then there were crashes at 8, 9 and 9:30 a.m., not to mention stranded drivers calling for help because they had slid off the road, Kelly said.
To add to the situation, those trying to help get cars out of snow banks and ditches also got stuck, including police cars, plows and other vehicles.
Additionally, several Presque Isle officers could not get in to work their shift because they lived along the roads from Houlton or Caribou, according to Kelly.
“We called everybody we had to get here,” Kelly said.
There was a lull in the late morning, but then the calls picked back up after lunch with crashes at 1, 1:05, 1:07 and 1:30 p.m., according to Kelly.
Detailing some of the other crashes, Kelly said there were cars off Centerline Road near the tracks and there was a crash with a tractor trailer. A vehicle on Williams Road was hit by a plow truck when the driver was trying to turn into her driveway and the plow truck driver couldn’t see her.
Presque Isle police even got a call from a woman who was in Madawaska around dinner time, but couldn’t get home because of conditions, and she was worried about her autistic son at home in Presque Isle.
The Northern Light AR Gould Hospital emergency department in Presque Isle admitted eight patients related to vehicle crashes, communications manager Karen Gonya said Wednesday. All patients had nonlife-threatening injuries and have since been released.
The hospital was prepared to handle a massive influx of patients with serious injuries if necessary, with several departments, such as the hospital’s lab and imaging departments, having extra equipment and staff members on hand, Gonya said. But due to the more minor nature of the patients’ injuries, the hospital did not become overwhelmed with more patients than staff could handle.
The Fort Fairfield Fire and Rescue Department set-up an emergency control center on Tuesday to assist area dispatchers with emergency calls, Fort Fairfield Fire Chief Timothy Browning said. The Emergency Operations Center is a completely operable dispatch center they established in the fire department training room and it’s ready to go in about 30 minutes.
“Presque Isle dispatch was inundated and we were able to assist,” Browning said. Additionally, Fort Fairfield Fire assisted with several crashes, mostly in Presque Isle and Caribou.
Late Tuesday, Fort Fairfield Emergency Management opened a warming center at the community center for stranded motorists. Two people from Tennessee were taken to the center overnight because their vehicle was inoperable, Browning said. They were taken to family in Presque Isle Wednesday morning, when the warming center closed.
Presque Isle’s Chief Kelly said that on Wednesday morning lanes on some roadways were narrowed because the snow piles were so large.
Caribou Police said there were 10 reportable crashes there in addition to roughly 30 vehicles off the road on several roads throughout the city, including Route 89, South Main Street, the West Presque Isle Road, and the New Sweden Road. The low visibility led to a head-on collision on Route 89, Laura Adams, administrative assistant, said. South Main Street was closed for roughly six hours.
Two people were transported to Cary Medical Center with non life threatening injuries throughout the day.
In Madawaska, police reported no crashes as a result of poor road conditions, but there was a pileup in Cyr Plantation and Van Buren Fire Department closed Route 1 where it goes through the town.
As information continues to come in, people who may have been involved in crashes who have yet to be accounted for are encouraged to report any information to the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office, by calling 207-532-3471.
Reporters Hannah Catlin, Chris Bouchard, Melissa Lizotte, Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli and Alex MacDougall contributed to this story.