In a matter of seconds, Susan Nadeau felt her car slide into a vehicle vise on ice.
A few minutes later, John Brubaker received a call for assistance.
And it wouldn’t be until the next day that Ron King would learn one of his insurance clients also had been in the middle of it all.
Blinding snow on Sunday sparked major chain-reaction accidents on the Kansas Turnpike, ones that would ensnare more than 70 vehicles, snarl traffic for hours, command resources throughout northeast Kansas and even draw attention nationwide.
Now it’s time to sort through the mess that few could have expected.
“It is a miracle — absolutely, a miracle,” said Nadeau, whose year-old Toyota Corolla wedged between a deli truck and a concrete wall before being slammed from behind in what would become a seven-vehicle chain of destruction. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Michael Johnston, CEO of the Kansas Turnpike Authority, described the turnpike accidents as “the (Almost) St. Valentine Day Massacre,” a combination that saw 45 vehicles in the westbound lanes and another 30 or so in the eastbound lanes near Kansas Highway 7 and elsewhere in the region engage in “bumper tag taken to another level.”
John Claxton, chief of Bonner Springs Emergency Services, had two paramedics and three EMTs working one of the pileups — one that sent about 15 people to area hospitals, a relative few considering the conditions.
To transport those whose cars were disabled, Bonner Springs schools sent two school buses. A couple of area transit vans also joined the multijurisdictional effort.
“It’s something that you train for (and) hope it never happens, but it did happen,” Claxton said.
Troopers with the Kansas Highway Patrol were still compiling information Monday — working to piece together not only what happened, but what to do now.
“Trying to get all of this gathered has been kind of humorous,” said Trooper Howard Dickinson, indicating the confusion involved with documenting accidents involving so many cars. “We’ve got cars that don’t have any drivers.”
At Hillcrest Wrecker & Garage Inc. in Lawrence, owner Jerry Taylor had nine vehicles from the pileups in his lot just off Franklin Road, their hoods crumpled and their trunks crushed.
His company was among the first called in for multiple wrecks in the turnpike’s eastbound lanes, near milepost 221, just west of Kansas Highway 7. Fortunately he had four guys working and could bring in a fifth.
“It’s one of those things you expect always to happen somewhere else: on the East Coast or the West Coast,” he said. “We weren’t prepared for that. We weren’t thinking about that at all.”
Crews from Hillcrest and other companies parked more than a mile away, their drivers then walking to the scene and see what they could soon do.
Brubaker, who drives a Hillcrest wrecker and took one of the early calls, knew the first priority: pull cars apart, to open a lane for traffic. Next: clear the scene, a process made easier by hauling as many as two cars at a time on flatbed trucks to the Lawrence rest area before going back for more.
By Monday morning, Brubaker and other Hillcrest drivers had transported nine vehicles to the yard in Lawrence and another three to Topeka.
Now the insurance companies are calling the tow companies.
“We’ve had calls all day long,” Brubaker said.
King, an American Family Insurance agent in Lawrence, normally advises his clients to gather names and phone numbers from others when involved in an accident.
Not this time.
“There’s no way in the world, with 40 to 50 cars,” King said. “You can’t go from car to car to car to get everybody’s information.”
Instead, insurance agents, claims adjusters and others in the mix will be looking to review the accidents reports so they can expedite the process for repairs and settlements.
“It could be awhile before they sort out whose fault it was,” King said.
Through it all, Nadeau isn’t complaining.
She’d simply been driving home to Shawnee from her mom’s place near Topeka when she suddenly couldn’t see through the snow, then swerved to avoid a truck, smelled her airbags deploy and felt the repetitive impacts of cars behind her.
She wouldn’t climb into the cab of a warm tow truck until four hours later.
Then Monday afternoon, in the Hillcrest lot, she would get back into her rental car with about all she could salvage: a Kansas license plate, in remarkably good shape considering how the rest of her Corolla’s rear end had been bashed.
“I’ve been on the phone for hours, dealing with it all,” she said. “But I’m OK.”
Her smile remained very much in place.