After the South County Carmageddeon that took place on Thursday (some of the MoDOT people were rumored to brag it being in the top 10 of the worst), I went through of some of what were easily the worst interstate highway incidents that happened in St. Louis. I may be more partial to some parts of the region than others and dates may be sketchy, so bear with me. Nothing on the list was contributed to winter storms – they fall in their own category, nor were incidents triggered by severe weather.
May 1998 – The Trash Truck Incident
A truck that was taking the I-70 approach to the Poplar Street Bridge left its boom out, and that boom struck the eastbound Highway 40 approach to that bridge, shutting down that approach for 6 weeks until a new pier could be built. The I-70 approach itself was shut down from time to time during this time frame, leading the only way to the Poplar Street Bridge being the I-44/55 approach if you want to get into Illinois. The afternoon that it happened came on a day that the Cardinals had a day game (that they lost), there was construction on the I-270 Chain of Rocks bridge that had a lane down in each direction depending on what time of the day it was, and the incident happened right before the start of the evening peak. This combination of events lead to major gridlock to downtown St. Louis, and the single lane mainline ramp for I-55 to the Poplar Street Bridge was overwhelmed. Most of the locals soon started to make their way towards the JB Bridge as the days passed, fully aware of the construction woes on I-270.
February 28, 1997: Tanker truck overturns on Clark Bridge approach
Normally, incidents on the Clark Bridge don’t have a big fallout in the grid, and while this was not on an interstate highway, it directly caused chaos on one. In the Alton-River Bend region, the locals only see one alternate to the Clark Bridge – I-270. In 1997, that section of 270 from Lilac to I-255 was down 1 lane due to construction – and depending on the time of the day you either had 2 westbound lanes or 2 eastbound lanes (the kicker: it was westbound all the time except from 2pm to 7pm M-F). In addition, 270 east of the Route 367 exit only had a grand total of 4 lanes (2 in each direction) under normal circumstances. The same construction had the river bridge down to a 8’6″ width restriction, which required wide loads to use alternate routes as a result.
This incident happened at the worst possible time – 2:45 PM on a Friday afternoon. Friday afternoon was the busiest time of the day for traffic on that section of 270 (westbound often jammed up east of 255), and it was around that time traffic bogs down around the bend on 270 between 370 and 170. With the incident causing the Clark Bridge to shut down due to a potential Hazmat situation, traffic only had one place to go: across the river on 270. The construction zone on 270 often saw incidents – more than likely blocking all traffic until they were cleared – and the combination of the circumstances set up for one of the record breaking traffic jams ever to happen on the North County portion of 270.
The westbound traffic jam was nothing compared to the eastbound traffic was about to witness. Locals claim that very afternoon, the eastbound lanes of 270 were jammed from McDonnell all the way to 255, a distance of 19 miles. The traffic jam across the Chain of Rocks Bridge was still going strong at 10:30 PM that night, which was very unusual. It was virtually a miracle that the section of 270 through the construction zone went incident free that night. It was not until 1 AM before the Clark Bridge would reopen to traffic, and the Alton Telegraph put this on the headline in the newspaper the next morning: “Traffic Nightmare”.
The traffic jam was not confined to 270: Route 143 was backed up so bad in places that the Alton-Edwardsville High School boys basketball game was delayed over an hour. When this chaos happened, the section of 255 from 270 to 143 was not yet opened.
There has not been an incident since then that caused uber traffic jams on I-270 through North County into the Metro East in the eastbound direction. The circumstance that came close to that was the October 2012 canal bridge lane closures and that one only jammed up traffic a meager 15 miles for a couple hours.
September 13, 1999: Fatal accident shuts down North County
Back then, westbound I-270 had a left exit and a left merge at the I-170 interchange. This interchange was the source of westbound peak hour backups that went back to Route 367 and occasionally into Illinois should an incident happen during the morning peak. With the hilly nature of the entire I-270 mainline in North County, locals often referred it as the Valley of Death.
During the morning peak period on September 13, 1999, a tractor trailer fails to slow down for the traffic jam and hits several vehicles from behind at full speed, killing one person and shutting down I-270 for hours. This incident did not happen at I-170, but right in front of what was St. Thomas Aquinas Mercy High School, which is now defunct. The accident stunned the high school students, and overloaded Dunn and Pershall Roads, along with Washington Ave. The lack of decent east-west alternate routes throughout this section of North County would soon show its ugly head, and many main roads would be clogged for hours.
A few weeks after this incident, MoDOT had a I-270 public hearing at Flo Valley – that meeting was packed and heated. The I-270/I-170 interchange would be rebuilt with right exits and right merges. While there has been some big time incidents on I-270 through North County since then, none had the lasting impact as this one.
August 11 and 12, 1994: Chainmageddon I: Emergency repairs on 270 cause Metro East chaos
Late on August 10, 2 pins would fail on the Illinois approach to the Chain of Rocks Bridge, shutting down both westbound lanes of I-270 and bringing fears that another I-95 Minaus River tragedy was happening. The quick thinking of alert motorists averted that fear, but for the people that usually took 270 during the morning peak across the Mississippi River, they were forced to take alternate routes. Just 8 months before the incident, the River Bend region saw the opening to the new Clark Bridge – and the bragging on how amazing that bridge was to that region came to an abrupt end that night. The flaws with the Illinois approaches, not to mention that Landmarks Blvd. was not yet built – would rear their ugly head, along with the road construction that was going on Route 143 on the Berm Highway. Route 143 had a single left turn lane to the Clark Bridge – with enough room for just 5 to 7 vehicles. This caused 143 to back up towards Wood River. The only other approach was on Ridge Street – and it was clogged along with Broadway and Alby.
The Clark Bridge was not the only bridge choked with the excess traffic, but the traffic approaching the Poplar Street Bridge which normally jams up 55/70 traffic to the 64 split was now backing up towards 255. Routes 3 and 203 were major clusterfucks as well. The incident had a lasting effect, possibly contributing indirectly to the February 1997 traffic jam caused by a Clark Bridge incident. The Alton Telegraph was often posting articles of updates, keep in mind that the Internet was not widely used in 1994, and it would be over 16 years before another incident on that 270 bridge would cause epic traffic jams throughout St. Louis.
December 8, 2010: Chainmageddon II
Just before 5 AM on a Wednesday morning, a vehicle stalls in the westbound lanes of the Chain of Rocks Bridge. Because that bridge had no shoulders (thus not meeting current interstate highway standards), that vehicle blocked a traffic lane. The driver in that vehicle decides to push the car off. Meanwhile, a tractor-trailer going westbound at full speed fails to notice that vehicle, hitting it from behind, killing the driver in that vehicle, then comes to the rest in the median and catches fire. The weather was unusually cold (but not record cold) for this time in December, as the temperatures had gone into the teens for overnight lows. Any attempt to fight the fire would ice over the bridge – and this section of 270 had never fared well with ice storms to begin with (almost every major ice storm that took place has shut down the bridge).
The combination of events cause the 270 bridge to get shut down for 10 hours at one of the worst times of the day – and the 50K+ vehicles had to go somewhere. The Clark Bridge had twice the traffic that it had in 1994 and the McKinley Bridge only had 2 lanes instead of the 4 it had. The Metro East also had seen a big population boom since 1994 (not as big as St. Charles County). The poorly designed Illinois approaches to the Clark Bridge once again reared its ugly head – with Route 143 backing up well into Wood River and the other downtown Alton streets were left with a large clusterfuck. Routes 3 and 203 in Granite City were no better, and 55/70 was backed up all the way to Route 159 – a total of 15 miles. The biggest difference between 1994 and 2010 was the invention of social media – and the locals turned to that to vent out their frustration. Less than 2 weeks after this epic fail, there was another epic fail on this same bridge triggered by a stalled vehicle and a tractor-trailer hitting that vehicle from behind – in almost the same exact location. The difference in that fail was that the driver in the stalled vehicle decided to run away from the scene – and lived to see another day.
This incident would cause IDOT to modify the Landmarks Blvd. approach to the Clark Bridge, changing that right turn lane into a “right turn at all times” lane. The next morning, at least 3/4 of the front page of the Alton Telegraph was devoted to this incident. (Not even the 1994 incident was front page top story, and none of the other incidents on either bridge has gotten emphasis on the front page like this one.)
November 20, 2013: The Fireworks Incident
This morning peak hour incident may had only involved one vehicle, but it was the circumstances behind the woman in that vehicle that made this event so bizarre. This incident cause rush hour traffic on I-270 in West County to grind to a halt, backed up various alternate routes, and was all over the St. Louis morning news.
The woman, was trying to pull off a suicide attempt but failed. A few months later, she actually did pull it off but not with the fireworks.
November 23, 2007: the crash that stunned the Metro EastSisters from the Collinsville area were simply driving on I-64 just west of the Route 158 exit when a state trooper going over 100 MPH hits their car. The sisters were killed instantly, and both directions of I-64 would be shut down for hours. The crash itself overburdened the 2 lane sections of Highways 50, 161, and 177, but that was the least of the worries. There was one very pissed off mother that would made sure that the cop that caused the incident would be such a living hell that he moved out of state just to get a change in scenery. Years later, this accident still gets media attention. The section of I-64 has been named in memory of the sisters.July 9, 2004: The train derailment that shut down Southern IllinoisUsually, major traffic incidents that happen on the outlying areas of the St. Louis TV media coverage get ignored. This incident was much different. It happened on I-57 near Benton, and a train derails and spills its load on the overpass directly over the interstate. The two alternate routes, 37 and 148, get overburdened right off the bat – and that was the least of the worries.This incident on I-57 actually made top story in the St. Louis TV news that day – so much that the news helicopters were dispatched to get footage. This incident happened on a Friday, usually the busiest time for I-57 traffic, as this section of roadway is often packed with St. Louisians that are heading to Kentucky Lake for the weekend. It would be over 24 hours before the interstate would fully reopen, and the locals from Benton had a lot of excitement to gossip about.June 18, 2012: The rodeoDuring the pre-dawn hours of June 18, there is a tractor-trailer crash on I-64 at I-255, causing several steers to get loose. These steers managed to evade capture and cause a morning rush hour excitement – to the point they were shot and killed by the police.9 down, 1 to go – to be updated at a later time.
February 7, 2014: The Highway 40 Truck-B-Que
The weekend before the opening of the Stan Span led to one of the infamous peak hour incidents on Highway 40 just west of the Poplar Street Bridge. A truck going westbound on 40 will break down, catch fire, and become fully engaged – just before the start of the morning peak. This incident shut down both lanes of 40 past the Poplar, forcing Illinois traffic to either use 44/55 or 70. This incident caused both 55/70 and 64 to back up towards 255, overloaded the other crossings, and would take over 5 hours to clear.