White Out

Putting together a collection of my stories about all of the storms and natural disasters I have been in, one comes to the fore and shows how conditions can quickly move past hazardous and become deadly!

White Out

In the spring of 2005, several months before I retired, I had planned to get an early start on a Saturday morning and drive to Goldthwaite and arrive before lunch. Living in Bayou Vista, Texas, right on the Gulf Coast, I had a 4 plus, hour drive awaiting me.

Setting my clock for 5:30 AM, I awoke with a start at 6:00 AM. I hadn’t turned “On” the alarm. So much for a real early start! Rushing and getting dressed I look outside toward my boat dock and notice that it is foggy, not unusual for this time of the year.

Nothing to load up so I climb into my 4WD, Suburban and head out noticing that there is about 200 yards of visibility, again not strange. I surmise that the farther I go inland, the lighter the fog will be.

Heading north on I-45 the traffic, yes traffic at 6:20 AM on a Saturday, is moving along about 45 MPH and the farther inland I get, it seems the fog is getting thicker. Seventeen miles from downtown Houston, Beltway 8, a toll road, exits east and west. It is a highly elevated, curving, exit to the west and the fog almost, it seems, touches the Suburban’s top!

Clicking on my blinkers, the traffic report comes on, every 20 minutes on weekends, instead of the 10 minutes on work days, and reports heavy fog on Beltway 8 around Texas 288, The Nolan Ryan Expressway, 5 miles ahead. Slow going for a ways!

On the “Raceway”, er Beltway, posted speed is 65 MPH, which is ignored, and most motorist clip along a 75 or 80, but today we’re down to 40 and nearing 288, traffic slows dramatically, red lights glaring, hazard lights blinking and we enter a white world. The radio blares, “There has been a series of major accident on Beltway 8 between Hillcroft and Cullen, and reports from the scene say the Beltway is closed.”

Closed it is and the fog is so thick I can barely make out the reflections of the car’s lights to my front. I have never seen, or even imagined, that fog could be so heavy! Behind me I hear a grinding CRASH, and brace for a hit that never comes.

We’re stopped and nothing to do but listen to the radio, that is now getting a better report from the authorities. The Beltway is closed both ways and at least 100 cars are involved in the chain reaction accident on the inbound side and around 1,000 cars are stuck and fogged in. Deaths and injuries are reported and we are still 2 to 3 miles from the accident site.

Sirens are blaring from every direction as police and sheriff’s officers begin to arrive all along the Beltway. They begin moving cars off of the Beltway and soon I’m on the access road, still heading west, but stopped. We creep along and in some places the fog seems so thick that it must be impenetrable.

After about an hour, we begin creeping along side the scene of the most deadly accidents and then, the fog lifts, just like that! Cars are piled into each other and resemble accordions, reminding me of scenes from “The Highway Of Death” in Kuwait; some cars are upside down on the grades leading up the overpasses, with radiator fluid, gasoline and oil pooled on the road surface, people are milling around stunned and law officers are everywhere. We continue our creep for 600 or 700 yards and up ahead I see the law directing us back on to the Beltway, in bright sunshine!

We couldn’t get out of our vehicles and help since we were being herded along. All I could do was say a prayer for those involved and thank the Lord that I was 15 minutes late. If I had been on time, I would have been right in the middle of it.

Final tally was 110, cars and trucks involved, with 7 deaths and a myriad of injured.

I was in Houston last month and traveled along this stretch of the Beltway (at 75 MPH) and there are still skid marks on the road surface and on the median attesting to the speed and violence of the crashes!