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2 Years After Deadly I-35W Crash, Texas Road Policies Change

Six people died on Feb. 11, 2021, in one of the most destructive crashes in state history when a winter storm caused cars to skid along a two-lane tollway. On Sept. 1, two bills that aim to prevent similar crashes in the future will go into effect.

More than two years later, Bobbie Gilbert struggles to grasp her brother’s death.

Her brother, Michael Wells, was on his way to work in Fort Worth, Texas, during a deadly 2021 winter storm when cars began to skid on a two-lane tollway. Vehicles smashed together on the narrow, iced-over road, damming the interstate as traffic continued.

He was stuck and stranded, his family says, when an 18-wheel truck came barreling behind him, hitting his pickup then running on top of it.

Wells, 47, was among six people who died Feb. 11, 2021, on the toll lanes of Interstate 35W, in one of the most destructive crashes in state history: 130 vehicles involved, and dozens of people injured.

Tiffany Gerred, 34; Tamara Mendoza Querales, 46; Christopher Vardy, 49; Aaron Watson, 45; and William Williams, 54, were also killed in the crash.

“It still seems unreal,” Gilbert told The Dallas Morning News more than two years after the pileup.

On Friday, two bills that lawmakers say can stem the likelihood of a similar crash will go into effect. The measures, passed this past legislative session, allow speed limits to be adjusted under hazardous highway conditions and require tollway operatorsworking for private companies to have the same level of winter weather training as state employees. Training became a point of emphasis, and at times a sore spot, during a monthslong National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the deadly collision.

The board concluded that the crash’s probable cause was the buildup of ice on the elevated stretch of the roadway.

It laid blame on the operator, North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners — a private business that built and manages the toll lanes — for its “insufficient” training and “deficient” road monitoring practices. NTE has said it was confident in the actions taken by the company that day, according to spokesman Robert Hinkle.

The company, Hinkle said, has made several steps to improve its winter maintenance efforts, strengthening their training and utilizing more advanced technology. Gilbert’s family appreciates the changes, but they have filed a lawsuit against the trucking companies involved and NTE.

She believes the tollway operator has not been held responsible for its actions that day.

“You cannot put profit over safety,” said Loren Klitsas, an attorney representing Gilbert’s family. “You cannot put any consideration over safety ever. In this instance, they all did — all these defendants did.”

Treatment Before Crash

A decade ago, the Texas Department of Transportation signed an agreement with NTE to reconstruct the existing lanes and add two TEXpress lanes in each direction north of downtown Fort Worth leading up to Alliance Airport. Since then, NTE has been responsible for roadway improvements and maintenance, including during storms, while profiting from the tollway.

TxDOT has said these agreements, which place much of the cost on the private company, can accelerate the delivery of projects by as much as 15 years and improve traffic flow in one of the most congested roads in the state.

Two days before the crash, which occurred on a bridge near the East Northside Drive exit, NTE employees started anti-icing, or pretreating the roadway with a commercial brine.

If the pretreatment is ineffective and ice remains on the roadway, maintenance workers begin de-icing, which involves using chemicals, such as salt, gravel or even some liquids, to “help plow through whatever pack is there and break that bond,” said Richard Nelson, the coordinator of the winter weather management program of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. TxDOT has said pretreatment typically buys time in the early stages of the storm before future applications of chemicals become effective, according to NTSB.

The day before the crash, on-scene technicians began 12-hour shifts patrolling the roadway and adding salt and other minerals where they noticed ice, according to documents from NTSB. Fifteen technicians were on duty prior to the crash, the NTSB report said.

“The bridge locations are usually the ones that do get iced over first because… it’s elevated and you got all the wind going underneath so it tends to be colder on the pavement [and freeze before other stretches of road],” an NTE employee told NTSB investigators.

Employees used handheld thermometers, visual observation and brake-checking to decide whether areas needed de-icing, according to the NTSB report.

On-scene personnel are constantly adjusting their strategy and making decisions in real-time, Nelson said, making their training critical.

“Do I plow? Do I put chemicals down? How much do I put down?” Nelson said. “For them to make good decisions, having a foundation is important just so they understand what it is they’re doing.”

Tollway employees in November participated in annual one-day training event, known as the snow and ice rodeo. But a 2020 agenda of the rodeo didn’t mention what methods to use to assess road conditions, according to the NTSB. Employees later told NTSB investigators conflicting details, with some saying the training covered the topic while others said it didn’t; one employee said the date of the crash was their first time “actively participating in spot-checking.”

About 2 a.m. Feb. 11, conditions quickly began deteriorating after freezing rain pelted the roads.

The warnings began more than an hour later. A crash was reported 5 miles north of the eventual pileup, prompting nearby NTE signs to alert motorists about icy conditions.

A little after 5 a.m., employees drove through the crash site and didn’t detect moisture or ice, the NTSB report said. None of the crew reported seeing any rain, freezing rain or sleet in the area before 6 a.m., investigators said.

More advanced weather technology could have helped in that situation, federal investigators said.

The most widely used tech around the country are environmental sensor stations, which measure a location’s atmospheric and, most importantly, pavement conditions. (After the crash, NTE added 18 weather sensors in Dallas-Fort Worth; TxDOT as well as Oklahoma’s Department of Transportation already had been using them.)

‘He Didn’t Make It’

Gilbert remembers the day very clearly. She was working in Klitsas’ law firm in Houston when Wells’ wife called about an hour after the crash began — around 6 a.m., she said.

Gilbert sensed something was wrong. Her sister-in-law doesn’t call her when she’s at work.

Wells’ wife asked if Gilbert heard from her husband.

“She just said, ‘Mikey left to work at 6, but he didn’t make it,’” Gilbert said. “‘I’ve got his Find My iPhone, and it shows him at the accident site.’”

They heard of reports of the crash and then began calling several hospitals and police for any signs of Wells, said Klitsas, an attorney with Klitsas & Vercher.

Gilbert and her sister-in-law suspected Wells was unable to answer the phone because he was in the area trying to help others. That’s what he would do, Gilbert said.

For example, one day Wells stopped on his way to work to help a woman change her tire, Gilbert learned after he died. Inside his office desk was a thank-you note from the woman.

So they waited and waited on Feb. 11 in hopes of any sign of him. They didn’t get one until they began watching a TV broadcast in Klitsas’ office. A horrific scene had unfolded at the crash site: cars wedged together, some piled on top and others lodged under a tractor-trailer.

Through the hunks of metal, Gilbert spotted a familiar sight.

“Bobbie crumbled to the floor and said, ‘that’s Mikey’s truck, that’s Mikey’s truck,’” Klitsas said. “And then we all realized what had happened.”

For Klitsas, the case is personal. Gilbert has worked at his firm for more than two decades, and he has known her family for years, he said. Their lawsuit is one of several filed against NTE or trucking companies involved in the crash.

“The training and the preparation on behalf of the roadway companies was just ridiculous,” Klitsas said. “It literally shocks the conscience.”

What Comes Next

Since the crash, NTE completed the construction of the last leg of the I-35W project. The company has said it’s made several steps to enhance its winter maintenance efforts, improving its training, increasing its fleet of maintenance vehicles, adding the use of a new forecast vendor and equipping vehicles with infrared thermometers as well as GPS devices and controllers.

Recently passed House Bill 1885 allows the state to adjust the speed limit on roads in certain conditions, including times of adverse weather, congestion and construction. Transportation officials will be able to lower the limit by a max of 10 mph, one of the recommendations NTSB investigators made following the crash.

Highway sensors from NTE showed the average speed of the vehicles on the two-lane southbound tollway was 65 mph on the right lane and 82 mph on the left 15 minutes before the pileup.

“The deadly pileup on I-35W was an example of the kind of situation that could be made safer with variable speed limit systems,” the author of the bill, State Rep. Terry Canales, said in a statement.

Another bill that was passed, House Bill 4797, requires employees of tollway companies performing treatment to complete training in the same manner as a TxDOT employees; TxDOT will provide its training material to help facilitate this measure.

State Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., a Fort Worth Democrat and author of the bill, said he believes both bills address flaws in TxDOT’s partnership with NTE, but he doesn’t believe it makes the roadway any safer. He said the narrow width of the tollway and the concrete barriers that separate it from general-use lanes on the right still make it prone to fatal crashes.

He said one of his former colleagues in the House told him, “Ramon, those people were in a trash compactor, and they had no way out.”

At least a dozen lawsuits in Tarrant County court from the family members of the victims and survivors in the crash are still ongoing.

Just across the crash site is a plaque at Riverside Park in Fort Worth to honor the victims.

On the two-year anniversary of the crash, Gilbert was there with her sister, who went to a local florist and had six yellow flowers made to lay out at the plaque. Each of the flowers had the name of a victim from the crash written on a yellow tag. A red heart was beside Wells’ name.

Gilbert plans to make the trip to Fort Worth and do this every year with her sister for all the victims in the crash and for her brother and best friend.

She added, “We want to make sure everybody that had a family member that died that day [has their loved one] remembered on the same day as well.”

©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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