Windsor

20 years later: Remembering the Highway 401 fog crash

Sept. 3, 1999 was just a regular day before 87 cars and tractor trailers crashed in a patch of dense fog on the 401, just east of the Windsor Airport.

The pile-up involving 87 vehicles killed 8 people and left 45 injured

Dense fog on Sept. 3, 1999 caused an 87-vehicle pile-up on Hwy. 401, leading to the death of eight people, while injuring 45 others. 1:34

September 3, 1999. 

"It was just a regular day," remembers former police officer Lee Batte.

And then everything changed.

It's a crash so devastating it has its own Wikipedia entry, a tragedy that longtime residents of Windsor-Essex remember all too well. 

Batte, now retired, was one of the first Ontario Provincial Police constables on the scene when 87 vehicles were lost in the fog on Highway 401 near Manning Road,  roughly 10 kilometres east of the Windsor Airport.

Eight people died and 45 others were injured in one of the worst traffic pileups in Canadian history. 

Eight people died and 45 others were injured in one of the worst traffic pileups in Canadian history.  (CBC)

"I was hoping to get off a little bit early because I had a ball tournament that weekend," said Batte, remembering her day. 

"That day changed dramatically for me."

No fog warnings were issued due to a malfunction at the Windsor Airport observation station. 

"It was a sunny day, with a bit of a mist on the soybean fields right at Manning. I thought it was pretty," said Batte. 

"Then we got reports of a crash, west of Manning, multiple vehicles."

A fellow OPP constable was nearby when the cars started to pile up and told Batte "We need everything you've got."

How it began

Around 8 a.m., a tractor-trailer entered dense fog and slowed — causing a domino effect of jack-knifing tractor-trailers. Fog had reduced visibility to less than one metre, causing collisions on both sides of the grassy median. 

By the time the crashes slowed, 87 vehicles were  involved. 

Batte figured out to enter the crash zone by taking the westbound ramp onto Highway 401 at Manning backwards, a direction which confused dispatchers sending help in that direction. 

Some vehicles had to be traced by their registration numbers, after heat from a 'fireball' fused vehicles together. (CBC)

"At first I was shocked ... I've never seen anything quite like that," said Batte. "I saw the looks on people's faces that were okay and they were in disbelief."

Batte said it was "all hands on deck" triaging drivers and passengers at the scene.

The fireball

Some vehicles had to be traced by their registration numbers, after heat from a large fire fused vehicles together.

"The heat from it ... I was maybe 25 metres from the fireball, the hot zone," said Batte. "It was unbelievable."

Around 8 a.m., a tractor trailer entered dense fog and slowed — causing a domino effect of jack-knifing tractor trailers. (CBC)

Batte said at one point there was an explosion.

"I remember a firefighter tackling me and covering me. It was like shrapnel was flying through the air," said Batte. "I don't even know his name."

The aftermath

It took days to remove vehicles and reopen the road, which had to be re-paved. The Ministry of Transportation installed rumble strips on the newly paved shoulders.

The Canadian Automobile Association — which had previously identified a strip of Highway 401 further west of the crash site as "Carnage Alley" — hired traffic experts to study the section. They called for an additional traffic lane per direction and a concrete dividing barrier.

Some vehicles had to be traced by their registration numbers, after heat from a 'fireball' fused vehicles together. (CBC)

A coroner's inquest into the crash made 25 recommendations to improve safety, including adding photo radar and increased traffic enforcement. 

A Detroit couple injured in the pileup sued the federal and provincial governments and the town of Lakeshore, and another lawyer attempted a class-action suit. 

Batte said the weekend following the crash was a blur ... and she somehow still made her baseball tournament.

"Every September 3, I remember."

CBC reporting from that week:

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