3 people dead in 'horrific' 10-vehicle crash in highway construction zone

The Alberta Ministry of Transportation has announced it will conduct an investigation into a deadly 10-vehicle crash, which involved three semi-trailer trucks and seven passenger vehicles in a construction zone on a southern Alberta highway Tuesday. One truck was hauling fuel, and another butane; the flames engulfed the entire crash site. 

"Three people involved in this collision were confirmed deceased on scene," RCMP from Oyen, Alta., said in a news release Wednesday.

"Two people were critically injured and transported via air ambulance to area hospitals. Eight other people were injured and either treated on scene or transported to local hospitals."

The collision happened in a construction zone on Highway 9 near Range Road 73 between the hamlet of Chinook and the village of Cereal around 3:30 p.m. MT, RCMP said. Three tractor-trailers and seven passenger vehicles were involved.

"One of the semi-trucks was hauling fuel and the fuel ignited, causing several vehicles to catch fire.  A second semi was hauling butane," RCMP said in an emailed release on Tuesday.

Linda Nothing

There is an active construction zone along a 54-kilometre stretch of the two-lane highway that runs from Oyen to Youngstown.

"There's varying degrees. I think they have it broken up to do certain areas, but that whole stretch is going to be resurfaced," said Debbie Laughlin, who works at K&M Gas Plus in Youngstown.

Laughlin says the construction has been happening since mid-July.

Construction zone

"Things are fairly clearly marked, but with there being construction, there isn't any passing allowed through certain areas," she said. "There's quite a number of stops along the way while they're getting equipment out of the way and whatnot. There's flag people and speed limit signs."

Laughlin says the two-lane highway is busy and full of large transport trucks as well as the usual summer tourist traffic. But two serious accidents in two weeks has her concerned.

"Somebody is definitely not paying attention, I think," she said. "I don't know if it's an issue with the road ... I don't know if it's just impatient drivers. I don't understand how there can be such horrific accidents in construction zones."

Loughlin, who sees the highway travellers every day, says some drivers feel the highway is well signed, and others feel that it's not.

"You really do need to be more alert and pay attention," she said. "I do understand big trucks can't stop quickly, but they should be slowing down anyway, especially if they're loaded. I mean, it's hard to slow down a truck. So if you're in a construction zone, you would think you would be slowing down, and then know your truck limitations."

Full investigation promised

Transportation Minister Ric McIvor said his department will fully investigate the incident.

"Carrier Services will conduct an investigation of all commercial carriers involved to ensure the trucking companies and their drivers were in compliance with all commercial carrier regulations prior to this incident," he said in a statement.

"We will conduct an additional assessment of traffic management within the construction zone to ensure that necessary safety precautions are in place to keep Albertans safe."

McIvor said that the construction site had been assessed twice in the past 12 days, and all safety compliance measures were in place.

Evacuation alert issued

The evacuation alert, issued at 6:18 p.m, warned people not to stay in the area because of the smoke and evacuation crews were working in the area. They were also urged to use caution when travelling in the region, and to take their medication, blankets, sleeping bags, personal identification and documents with them.

Jordon Christianson, the chair for Special Area #3 — the region under the emergency alert — said the evacuation was issued as a precautionary measure due to the flammable nature of the material in the tanker truck.

An evacuation centre was opened at Youngstown Community Hall. RCMP said the fire was extinguished after 8 p.m., and residents were allowed to return to their homes at 9 p.m.

Christianson said residents of seven homes fled for the nearby village of Youngstown.

RCMP asked any witnesses or people involved in the crash to go to the legion in Oyen to speak with police on Tuesday evening. Food was provided and people could speak to members of the victim services unit.

Drivers were asked to avoid the area.

Highway 9 reopened to traffic at Range Road 73, between Oyen and Youngstown, shortly after 8 p.m. Wednesday.

"Crews are continuing to clear the collision scene, which includes the recovery of the dangerous goods contained in one of the semi-trucks," RCMP said in the Wednesday morning release.

RCMP say hazardous material teams will be at the site to help with the complex cleanup and a collision analyst was expected to remain at the scene until early Wednesday morning.

Traffic was being rerouted eastbound to Highway 884 and westbound to Highway 41.

'It was horrific'

Linda Nothing, who drove past the crash shortly after it happened, she said she had passed the same tanker earlier on the highway, but had stopped for something to eat at a truck stop.

"About 10 minutes into my drive is when I came upon that scene," she said. "I saw the smoke as I was driving toward it, and it got blacker and blacker. I thought it was maybe a brush fire … it was horrific. It's a horrific scene."

The crash comes roughly two weeks after another crash, involving two semis and an SUV, at a nearby construction site northwest of Oyen. An 11-year-old was killed and four members of his family were hospitalized.

One of the semis had stopped for construction and the SUV stopped behind it when a second semi hit the family's SUV.

Oyen is just east of Chinook and Cereal, just west of the Saskatchewan border, and roughly 300 kilometres east of Calgary.