RACINE COUNTY -- Two people were killed and two others were hurt in a crash and fire that happened along I-41/94 at 50th Road in Racine County on Wednesday, June 19 -- shutting down the interstate for hours. I-41/94 southbound reopened just before 9 p.m. Wednesday -- nearly 10 hours after the deadly wreck. The northbound lanes remained closed overnight so crews could repair pavement from fire damage. All lanes reopened in time for the Thursday morning commute.
Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling held a news conference on Wednesday afternoon to lay out exactly what happened. He indicated around 11 a.m., numerous 911 calls came in referring to a crash, fire, and explosions. The sheriff said it appeared those "explosions" were from tires heating up -- and then bursting.
Sheriff Schmaling said the investigation showed a semi tractor trailer was traveling southbound when the driver made a lane change. In the process, that semi hit a construction barrier. The semi driver over-corrected, and hit the median wall. That median wall was shoved into the northbound lanes of I-94. Three northbound vehicles hit each other and/or the barriers in their path -- and the driver of a northbound semi tractor trailer made a decision to make a "very evasive maneuver." He drove off the road -- and the semi burst into flames.
The sheriff said both semi drivers were killed.
"In my 24 years on this job, this is the worst accident I've ever been part of," Schmaling said.
All north and southbound lanes on the interstate were shut down as a result of the wreck.
Officials said the interstate was completely closed from Highway 20 to Highway G, both northbound and southbound. Both the east and west frontage roads were closed as well. Officials anticipated they would be able to open the interstate again around 8 p.m. Wednesday.
Sheriff Schmaling stated the driver of the second semi (the one that went off the road) saved lives by taking the evasive maneuver that he or she did.
"By turning, avoiding a crash of three individuals and a semi tractor that's already involved in the crash, and turning to avoid all of that -- absolutely. I think this unfortunate, deceased individual is a hero in and of itself by turning down and risking his own life to avoid crashing into innocent people," Schmaling said. "He turned off the roadway, rather than crashing into three other vehicles and a semi. I would suggest to you that that is very heroic -- risking his own life in an effort to save potentially three other vehicles."
The sheriff said there had been extra patrols along the construction zone in Racine County -- and there would continue to be. He urged the traveling public to be mindful of their speed and distractions while driving.
Anyone with further information that could help investigators was encouraged to call 262-886-2300. You can remain anonymous.