The Fort Leonard Wood Fire Department, along with several other local-area first responders, were dispatched to a nine-vehicle traffic accident on I-44 just after midnight June 9.
Multiple tractor trailers and passenger vehicles collided near mile marker 158 in rainy conditions.
FLWFD joined St. Robert Fire and Rescue and the Waynesville Rural Fire Protection District as part of Pulaski County’s mutual aid agreement. Tri-County and Hazelgreen Fire Protection Districts were also on the scene, along with assistance from the Pulaski County Ambulance District and the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
“It’s actually our fire protection area … and I called in those additional units for help because it was so extensive, and it was multi-vehicle, which is something that we don’t always have,” said St. Robert Fire Chief Mike Shempert.
Fort Leonard Wood Fire Chief Brad Bowling said debris and vehicles completely blocked the two westbound lanes.
“Waynesville was one of the first ones to get on the highway, and they found that the highway was completely blocked and impassable,” he said. “So all of the responding units had to come up the wrong direction on the highway.”
A team of first responders from multiple departments worked together to remove one driver trapped in a tractor trailer.
“This was an extensive extrication lasting nearly two hours,” Bowling said. “Crews were using everyone’s equipment to literally cut the truck away from the driver to get him out. This was a pretty significant one.”
Shempert, who served as the incident commander, said motorists need to keep in mind the dangers of driving in rainy, dark conditions along I-44.
He said semi-truck accidents are common around that part of the interstate.
“It’s a steep part of I-44,” he said. “Especially in inclement weather, just slow down.”
Guy Johnson, FLWFD assistant chief of operations, was part of the Fort Leonard Wood team on site. He agreed.
“First off, slow down – the speed limit is set for dry road conditions,” he said. “So, when it’s not a dry road, decrease your speed and increase your following distance so that you’re increasing the spacing between you and the surrounding vehicles.”
Drivers should be wary of visibility around curves and bends on I-44, he added.
“That’s a bad corner of the interstate right there, where quite a few accidents happen,” he said. “The weather and visibility probably both together – the hard rain and low visibility – surely affected the accident.”
Bowling and Shempert praised the county mutual aid agreement and said it allows for the installation and community fire departments to coordinate for better emergency response.
Shempert called it a “very valuable tool to have in our toolbox.”
“Fort Leonard Wood has one of the best heavy rescue units,” he said. “It really helps because they have multiple tools on that truck specifically for rescue operations of any sort, not just motor vehicles. It was great teamwork and effort by all the fire departments that assisted us.”
Bowling said it’s better for fire departments to have help at the ready and not need it than to be shorthanded in an emergency.
“The relationships that we built with the local departments – it’s priceless, and this is exactly why,” he said. “Because while we may go out on an accident five times and get turned all around five times because the crews get there and they are able to handle it themselves. Then there’s times like this where units arrive to find out, ‘Oh man, this is bad, we’re going to need help,’ and we’re already on our way and there are no delays.”
The agreement has had tangible benefits for the community, Johnson said.
“It’s something that we have put a strong effort in lately to improve the mutual aid for all of our surrounding departments,” he said. “It improves everyone’s service to the community.”
“I guarantee it has saved lives,” Bowling added.