At least eightpeople were killed after a “superfog” of smoke from south Louisiana marsh fires and dense fog caused multiple car crashes on Monday morning involving a total of 168 vehicles, authorities said.
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As of Tuesday evening, the death toll from the huge pileup increased from seven to eight people, the New York Times reported.
At least 63 people have now been reported injured, with police confirming that 10 additional cars were involved in Monday’s accident.
Governor John Bel Edwards issued a call for blood donors and asked for prayers “for those hurt and killed”.
Videos of the wreck showed what looked like an endless junkyard of cars on the busy interstate near the community of Manchac. Vehicles were crushed and rammed under one another, and some engulfed by flames. Many people stood on the side of the road looking on in disbelief at the disastrous scene, while others remained in their cars waiting for aid.
Christopher Coll, 41, was among the drivers in one of the pileups.
“I was already on the brakes, slowing down when an F-250 drove up on top of my work trailer and took me for a ride,” Coll told the Times-Picayune/the New Orleans Advocate.
Coll could smell smoke as he heard other drivers calling for help and the sounds of crashing cars and popping tires. He was able to kick open his passenger door to escape and then helped others – pulling out one person through a car window.
Traffic backed up for miles in both directions on I-55 near the community of Manchac. The lack of visibility also prompted closures of parts of I-10 and the 24-mile (39km) Lake Pontchartrain Causeway at times.
Responders seen near the pileup, which backed up traffic for miles on the interstate near Manchac, Louisiana. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP
School buses were summoned to transport stranded motorists from the accident sites on the elevated I-55, which passes over swamp and open waters between lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas. At midday, state police told reporters at the scene that one vehicle went over the highway guardrail and into the water, but the driver escaped unharmed.
Clarencia Patterson Reed said she was driving to Manchac with her wife and niece in the car when she saw people waving their hands for her to stop. She said she stopped the car, but was hit from behind and on the side by two other vehicles.
“It was: ‘Boom. Boom.’ All you kept hearing was crashing for at least 30 minutes,” Reed told the Times-Picayune/the New Orleans Advocate. She said her wife suffered injuries to her leg and side.
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Louisiana state police shared aerial photos on its Facebook page showing dozens of crashed cars and extensive debris on both northbound and southbound lanes of the elevated interstate, which passes over swamp and open waters between lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas.
As of Monday afternoon, state troopers were still working “to notify families, investigate the exact causes of the crashes” and coordinate with the state’s transportation department to have the bridge inspected.
Louisiana state police said on Tuesday that a consultant could start scans of the interstate to understand the extent of damages after the pileup.
A tanker truck carrying hazardous liquid was being offloaded after it was discovered that the tank was compromised, state police said. First responders will reassess the vehicles after the tanker is removed and “it is possible that additional fatalities could be located,” police said.
On social media, the National Weather Service said there were multiple wetland fires in the region. Smoke from the fires mixed with fog to create a “superfog”. Visibility improved as the fog lifted, according to the agency. But it was unclear how long the marsh fires, smoke from which could be seen and smelled in the New Orleans area over the weekend, would be a factor.
As of Wednesday, dense fog advisories have largely been lifted, WGNO reported.
The Times-Picayune/the New Orleans Advocate reported that several schools in and near New Orleans announced class cancellations or delayed openings due to the smoke and fog. Smoke from the Bayou Sauvage Urban national wildlife refuge was thick enough that the city announced locations where free masks could be picked up in eastern New Orleans and in the Algiers neighborhood on the west bank of the Mississippi River.