News Local

Highway 400 shut down for 30 km after fiery fatal crash in Bradford Tuesday

By Patrick Bales, The Orillia Packet & Times

Three people have died in a fiery crash on Highway 400 Tuesday night involving 14 vehicles.

OPP are still identifying the victims of the collisions, and notifying next of kin.

The 400 was to be closed all night Wednesday, with the southbound lanes hopefully opening Thursday morning, OPP said. Police are unsure about the northbound lanes, where the crashes took place.

Explosions could be heard and seen for kilometres from the crash site, north of Simcoe County Road 88 where, at 11:20 p.m., two fully-loaded fuel tanker trucks exploded on the highway, starting a fire that spread to several other vehicles.

OPP Sgt. Kerry Schmidt said at least three transport trucks were also involved in the crash.

“There are cars everywhere, twisted transport trucks, destroyed vehicles, metal that is unrecognizable as to whether or not it is a vehicle at all or not,” he said. “It’s absolutely devastating and beyond description.”

Heat from the fire was so intense that some of the vehicles literally melted into the highway.

“It’s one of the worst crashes I’ve ever seen in terms of absolute carnage and destruction,” Schmidt said.

Provincial police said the number of fatalities is expected to rise as first responders combed through the burned-out wreckage of the vehicles.

“The damage to those involved vehicles is absolutely catastrophic and I can’t tell you if those people got out, if they’re still inside the vehicles,” Schmidt said.

The cleanup and repair of Highway 400's northbound lanes is ongoing.

Katlin Shaw was driving up the highway with her fiancee when the fire broke out Tuesday night.

“It was scary,” she wrote in a Facebook message. “Everyone was pulling onto the side and people were getting out of their cars and checking it out."

Shaw and her fiancee were safely evacuated in their own vehicle. Many vehicles remained unable to be removed and they're now charred frames.

“It was scary as ever,” Shaw reiterated, “because it was so close and the woods were starting to get on fire as well."

OPP commissioner Vince Hawkes, who just days earlier had sounded the alarm about fatal collisions caused by distracted truck drivers, said the latest crash could have killed many more people.

“It’s a miracle that we don’t have 25 bodies down there,” Hawkes said, adding that he’s putting the trucking industry on notice.

The cause of the collision is still under investigation, but Hawkes appeared to be laying the blame on the transport truck’s driver.

“You can see that the highway is a straight stretch of highway, you can see that it’s downhill, there’s really no excuse for that transport truck to continue at the speeds that they did and impact the vehicles that were in the queue,” he said. “And as a result of that we have the devastation that you’re all well aware of.”

Officials said the fatal accident came on the heels of another more minor multi-vehicle collision on the highway.

At about 10:40 p.m., police, firefighters and paramedics were called to a three-vehicle crash about a kilometre north of where the major collision took place. One person is facing criminal charges for drinking and driving, OPP said.

“Traffic was slowing, obviously because there were some lane restrictions, and a few minutes later, within a half hour to 45 minutes, we saw another collision occur behind in the queued up traffic, and the resulting instantaneous fireball explosions,” Schmidt said.

Kevin Gallant, Bradford-West Gwillimbury fire chief, said the three-vehicle crash further north on Highway 400 likely produced heavy traffic that set the scene for the major accident.

“When I looked to the south from the accident I was already on, all I saw was a big ball of fire,” Gallant said.

“I know there was a lot of panic at the time of the collision,” Schmidt said, “and because of the fire, which was so intense, people were literally running from the scene as the wall of fire that was flowing along the fuel was inching toward people and vehicles, and that's what consumed so many of the vehicles that were here on-scene.”

Firefighters let the fuel burn itself out before tackling any remaining hot spots.

As for other injuries, Schmidt said those initially reported as critical or life threatening have been downgraded to minor injuries, or non-life-threatening.

Gallant said his was one of eight fire departments on the scene that helped get the fire mostly under control within about two hours.

Approximately 20 fire units assisted in putting out the blaze, alongside emergency response from the OPP Highway Safety Division and Nottawasaga detachment, as well as Simcoe County paramedics and York Region EMS.

Two full teams of the OPP's collision reconstruction unit got to the scene overnight to begin their investigation.

As that investigation progresses, significant repairs will need to be made to the highway, between Line 11 and Line 12 of Bradford West Gwillimbury, where the incident occurred.

“It is an absolutely devastating scene; it is absolutely horrific,” Schmidt added. “I would say it is probably the most incredible scene I've ever been to.”

At one point, the highway was closed from Highway 9 in King Township to Innisfil Beach Road – a stretch of about 30 kilometres – as crews battled the out-of-control fire and attempted to get all the motorists stuck on the highway off safely.

That lasted for about an hour early Wednesday morning.

Highway 400 was closed between Simcoe County Rd. 88 and Highway 89 and was expected to be shut down all day.

With files by Mark Wanzel, Bob Bruton and the Canadian Press