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December 15, 2009

Pittsburgh responders overwhelmed with calls of multiple pile-ups

By Mike Wereschagin
The Pittsburgh Tribune Review

PITTSBURGH — A Westmoreland County woman died in a crash yesterday during an icy morning that resulted in widespread road closures, event cancellations and more emergency calls and wrecks than 911 dispatchers could count.

Police closed portions of I-376, I-79, I-70 and the turnpike yesterday morning as vehicles skidded across black ice into guard rails and each other, PennDOT spokesmen said. The problems began around 7 a.m., when freezing rain fell across the region.

"Basically, every major artery in the Pittsburgh region iced up at one time within a matter of minutes," PennDOT spokesman James Struzzi said. Road crews were out but couldn't spread salt before the freeze because the rain would have washed it away, he said.

When the rain began turning to ice, it happened too fast and across too large an area for crews to prevent innumerable accidents, he said.

Amanda Dias, 22, of Derry was driving to her job as a veterinary technician at AVETS Animal Hospital in Monroeville. About 7:30 a.m., on a long, downhill stretch of Route 22 in Murrysville, the 1995 Honda Accord she was driving spun out of control, stuck a guide rail along the road's north berm and came to a stop in the road.

A 1996 Ford Explorer, driven by Ian Bonn, 24, of Latrobe, crashed into the Accord's passenger side. Dias died of head and neck injuries, said Westmoreland County Deputy Coroner Gerald Fritz.

"She always went above and beyond for her animals, and that's why, even though it was bad out, she said she had to be there," said her mother, Paulette Kim, 45, of Derry Borough. She described her daughter as a lifelong lover of animals.

"Animals were her life," said Shawna Dias, 16, of Latrobe, Amanda Dias' sister. "She got up every day wanting to go to work just to save a few animals, help other families with their animals. If somebody would ask her to look at their dog because they didn't have money to spend at the vet, she'd take time out of her own personal schedule to help."

Dias became engaged to Jason Campbell, 26, of Derry in August during a family trip to Ocean City, Md.

"Amanda loved Jason, her fiancee, so much," Kim said. Funeral arrangements are being handled by the John J. Lopatich Funeral Home in Latrobe.

An ambulance from Citizens Ambulance in Elderton in Armstrong County flipped over on its way to an accident, said Tricia Bramlet, a dispatcher with Armstrong County 911. The ambulance was demolished, but the crew was not hurt. The call center received more than 60 calls about accidents yesterday morning, she said.

"It was an ice rink out there," said Brad James, assistant chief for Eureka Fire Rescue in Tarentum. Ross Street, which leads to the Tarentum Bridge and Route 28, was closed for about half an hour as crews salted the road and cleared several minor accidents.

Allegheny County dispatchers said they received so many 911 calls and reports of multiple-vehicle accidents that they wouldn't be able to count them until today. Multiple-car pileups were reported across the county, including two on Route 51, where the road intersects Route 88 and Stewart Avenue.

Port Authority of Allegheny County shut down bus service for two hours.

A Hempfield Township salt truck driver suffered minor injuries when he purposely "laid down" his truck to avoid an accident about 8:30 a.m., said Mike Volpe, the township's road maintenance supervisor.

"He was taken to the hospital, but he's going to be OK," Volpe said.

Butler County 911 received at least 140 calls between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m., according to a dispatcher there. The center normally receives 150 to 200 calls in a day, he said.

As the calls streamed in, state police advised all drivers to stay off the roads until PennDOT crews could respond to the icy conditions. Traffic backed up for miles on the major roadways around Pittsburgh as police shut down the entire parkway system.

A tractor-trailer jack-knifed on southbound I-79 at Carnegie, forcing closure of that road until after 11 a.m. The Parkway West remained closed until after 11 a.m., as well. The Parkway East had reopened earlier in the morning.

Struzzi called the magnitude of the problems "unprecedented."

Numerous meeting cancellations and delays were reported across the region. The Duquesne Society brunch at Duquesne University, originally scheduled for noon, was canceled. The Carnegie Science Center theater postponed its two-hour Afterschool Buddy Holiday Show and Celebration, scheduled for 1:30 p.m., until Saturday, Dec. 19, at 1:30 p.m., said Susan Brozek-Scott, President & CEO of Afterschool Buddy, Inc.

Temperatures rose above freezing by noon, melting the ice, although rain continued throughout the day. Today is expected to be dry and in the 50s, said Lee Hendricks, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Moon.

State Transportation Secretary Allen Biehler was taken to UPMC Mercy, Uptown, after he slipped on ice outside his Crafton home. He was in stable condition last night after being treated for several cracked ribs, a chipped elbow and a collapsed lung, said his spokesman, Rich Kirkpatrick.

"It was, obviously, a difficult day for everyone," Struzzi said.

Copyright 2009 Tribune Review Publishing Company

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