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NTSB releases factual report on 2021 fatal, 133-car pileup crash on I-35W in Fort Worth

The crash resulted in six deaths and at least 65 people injured.

FORT WORTH, Texas — The National Transportation Safety Board has released a comprehensive report on the 2021, 133-car pileup on I-35W in Fort Worth that resulted in the deaths of six people and dozens of injuries. 

Released Wednesday afternoon, the report is comprised of more than 1,000 pages of findings, testimony, evidence and photos detailing what happened on that day, Feb. 11, 2021.

The crash summary begins at about 6 a.m. that day, when the crash happened near the exit to Northside Drive. 

Prior to the crash, the report states, the area had received 36 consecutive hours of below-freezing temperatures. NTE Mobility Partners Segments 3 (NTEMP S3), the company responsible for operating maintaining the tollway, reported they had pretreated two southbound toll lanes in the vicinity of the crash with an Ice Slicer NM brine solution two days prior.

The NTSB said treatment can be made prior to a storm if "the storm does not start out with above freezing and rain, washing the chemical away."

The crash stretched about 1,100 feet and involved commercial and passenger vehicles, the report stated. From the crash, six people were killed, two of which were pedestrians who were stuck on the road after they had exited their vehicles. The other deaths involved people who remained in their vehicle during the pileup. 

Thirty-six vehicle occupants were taken to local hospitals for treatment of their injuries, the report detailed. 

The weather station at Fort Worth Meacham International Airport, located about three miles northwest of the crash site, had reported light freezing rain and freezing mist about four hours before the crash, the report stated. 

A dynamic message sign along the southbound toll lanes began displaying the message "ICY CONDITIONS EXIST / PLEASE USE CAUTION" at about 3:40 a.m. This was based on an earlier crash at about 3 a.m. about five miles north of the crash site on I-35W. 

Dwight Kern McDaniel, an EMS responder with MedStar Mobile Healthcare, was taking his 2011 Toyota FJ Cruiser down the southbound tollway on I-35W to work at about 6 a.m. the morning of the crash. He said everything seemed normal, until he passed a bend past the 820 interchange, where he saw the stopped traffic on the main highway southbound. 

As he was easing on his brakes ahead of the stopped traffic, he said they began to lock up and he was already on black ice without even realizing it. The car ahead of him ended up smashing into the pileup. 

And as I'm approaching, and I try to slow myself down some more, and I turn into the center barrier to use the friction off the center barrier just to try to stop, and it slows me down just enough," McDaniel said. 

At this point, McDaniel said he was just trying to get his bearings. He couldn't get out of his car due to being up against the center barrier. A car on his right had just smashed into cars next to him, adding to the pileup. 

That's when he looked up and could see a semi-truck trailer piled on top of cars and trucks, he told investigators. 

"I've never seen anything like it. It just kind of dawned on me like what kind of situation I just encountered," McDaniel said.

That's when McDaniel saw a semi-truck barreling towards him in his rearview mirror, as it was throwing off sparks scraping against the center median, when it hits him from behind. 

"I mean, I get pushed into the vehicles in front of me," he said. "I get thrown over. I do a rollover into the northbound lanes. So I'm now in the opposite lanes. And so I just remember I wake up, and my foot's wedged underneath the brake pedal. 

"I get out and, you know, I hear cars outside just crashing. After every single crash, there was another scream. It was just -- it was kind of bone-chilling."

The preliminary timeline detailed in the report begins at about 10:32 a.m. Feb. 8, three days prior. The report states that is when the first winter weather alert was received by NTEMP S3.

"A cold front will move slowly through North Texas starting tonight and Tuesday and continuing south into Central Texas on Tuesday and Tuesday night. Temperatures near or below freezing across northern and northwestern parts of the area are possible, mainly for the nighttime and morning hours," the timeline states. "Behind the front, light precipitation may occur. Precipitation chances are highest on Wednesday and Thursday. Most of this precipitation will be in the form of light rain, but where and when temperatures are below freezing, some light freezing drizzle or freezing rain may occur."

NTEMP S3 maintenance technicians began pretreating traffic lanes in the area of the crash at about 10:12 a.m. Feb. 9 with an Ice Slicer NM brine solution, applying it to the two southbound toll lanes. Video footage pointed towards the crash site captured truck and briner sprayer applying the solution. 

The NTEMP S3 Traffic Management Center notified NTEMP S3 Customer Assistance at about 3:20 a.m. Feb. 11 of a crash at 3 a.m. in the northbound general use lanes of I-35W, the timeline detailed, which the report stated occurred partly due to icy road conditions on the elevated bridge. Maintenance crews were dispatched a few minutes later and used salt to spot treat the southbound and northbound toll lanes and general lanes. The treatment completed at about 4:43 a.m. 

The dynamic message sign was updated at about 3:40 a.m. at 7 dynamic message signs within 8.3 miles of the crash site, the timeline states. 

At about 4:50 a.m. NTEMP S3 maintenance crew members treated the US-287 entrance ramps to northbound toll and general lanes, and the TX-280 entrance ramps to northbound and southbound general use lanes, which was completed at about 5:20 a.m. 

But at about 6 a.m., the multivehicle crash occurred, the timeline concludes. 

Traffic camera video footage shows traffic at 5:50 a.m. was near or above normal speeds with little to no congestion, the report stated. Just before 6 a.m., vehicles in the southbound toll lanes began using their hazard warning lights.

Most vehicles in the southbound general use lanes were using their hazard lights by 6 a.m. with greatly reduced speed, the report detailed. By 6:05 a.m., vehicles were moving slower than normal with minor congestion. 

By 6:07 a.m., the report states, an ambulance can be seen traveling southbound in the general use lanes with hazard lights on. Traffic in northbound lanes increased and began to slow at this time as well. Additional emergency vehicles were seen traveling north a couple minutes later. 

By 6:10 a.m., traffic in all southbound lanes had greatly slowed. Northbound lanes in the toll lanes were still moving normally, but northbound general use lanes was stop-and-go. Multiple emergency vehicles were traveling in these lanes toward the accident site.  

A minute later, camera footage showed one vehicle in the southbound toll lanes slid, spun 180 degrees and stopped facing northbound, with other vehicles beginning to maneuver around the stopped vehicle, the report states. 

Two more vehicles began spinning a minute later in the southbound lanes, one in the toll lanes and one in a general lane. The vehicle in the toll lanes struck a concrete barrier between the toll and general lanes, and the vehicle in the general lanes spun across all traffic lanes before hitting a concrete barrier.

By 6:15 a.m., multiple roadways were blocked from the collisions, and all four lanes were either completely stopped or greatly slowed, the report stated. 

More vehicles continued colliding into the queue of already crashed vehicles, the report detailed. By 6:29 a.m., for the remainder of the footage, traffic remained completely stopped on all four roadways.

The report also includes interviews with NTEMP S3 maintenance technicians. The technicians told the NTSB they did not receive formal certification to spot check roads. 

"There wasn't any training," one technician told investigators. 

"They basically tell us to drive and stop if we skid, you know. That's pretty much it."

Fort Worth Police Department Sgt. Richard Camacho told investigators the road was slick to the point of being like an ice rink when he responded to the pileup. He saw another officer actually slip and fall, injuring his shoulder. 

"As people involved in the accident, some injured, were exiting or coming out of the expressway, they were having to use the wall to keep themselves upright," Camacho told investigators. "I mean, they were literally walking across the wall -- using the wall to hold themselves up."

Randy Behringer, another EMS responder with MedStar Mobile Healthcare, said he his ambulance was one of the first on the scene of the pileup, and that they actually had to drive through a ditch to get closer to the scene. 

"And when I saw the wreck, I was probably in a daze for about 30 seconds just because I've never seen anything quite like that before," Behringer said.

Behringer said he never really saw anyone on the ground on the toll road.

"All I saw was people walking on top of cars," he said.

Technicians also told the NTSB they primarily focused on visual observation to spot check roads, as opposed to using advanced forms of technology. 

Since the crash, the report states, the company has made a number of chances, including increasing its fleet of winter maintenance vehicles and its salt storage, adding 18 new weather sensors and new thermometers, and updating its training materials.

Read the full report here.

According to a spokesperson, the NTSB is expected to release its findings, recommendations, and probable cause determinations in a separate report by late Spring.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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