What started as an average day for Ryan Chaney turned into something straight out of a disaster movie as he found himself trying to pull people from the wreckage of a mass-casualty crash in Fort Worth on Thursday morning.
Chaney, an independent trucker from Argyle, was driving south on I-35 to work, where he hauls power poles for Sabre Industries. The 6 a.m. traffic moved semi-normally, with Chaney and most drivers going about 60 mph on mostly dry roads.
As he neared the 820 interchange, Chaney noticed his headlights reflecting off the surface of the road and recognized there could be black ice. He and other cars around him slowed down to about 20 mph.
But as he reached the 35W bridge near downtown Fort Worth, the road turned into “a solid sheet of ice,” he said. The driver next to him spun out and hit a guardrail. He slid into the car, luckily not causing much damage, and gained enough control to pull to the side of the highway.
Chaney got out of his truck and stood next to a guardrail that separated him from the TEXPress lanes. He asked the other driver that spun out if he was all right. As the driver told him that he was fine, he heard sliding sounds from the TEXPress lines beside him.
As he recovered from his own fender bender in the main lanes of traffic, Chaney watched a car slide on the ice and into the guardrail inside the TEXPress lanes. Another car was unable to slow down and smashed into the first car.
“The truck behind that vehicle tried to sacrifice himself into the concrete barrier, but the ice was so slick that as soon as he hit the brakes, it was over,” Chaney said. “He pushed them about 30 feet. And then it was car, truck, car, truck, car — it was never ending.”
Car slid and crashed into one another for about three minutes. During a pause in the chaos, Chaney jumped over the guardrail to try and help. He found some people who needed help getting out of their cars. Most of the people seemed OK, so Chaney started to walk through the pile-up to see if more people needed help.
The crash quickly became worse. A grain hopper smashed into the stopped cars and exploded, he said.
“I couldn’t see a foot in front of my face,” he said. “All that stuff was in the air, and I figured that’s where I should focus my attention, where it was worse.”
He saw a woman inside a small car, crumpled to the point that he could not tell what kind of car it was. She was screaming, so he jumped the rail and tried to get to her. He was in-between a tractor-trailer, the rear of a tractor-trailer and her car, which was wedged between the two vehicles.
He was trying to help her out of the trapped car when he saw a Fed-Ex truck heading toward them. He dove under the tractor-trailer and watched helplessly as the truck slammed into the woman.
“And she was crushed to death,” he said.
In a Facebook Live video he posted later, Chaney described the moment.
“I witnessed (someone) die in front of me, where I barely got out with my life. I mean, nearly missed it,” he said in the video. “I heard the truck hit, I heard the explosion, then I heard cars and metal crunching and I threw myself under a semi truck trailer just behind me. And that lady that I was trying to get out of her car got crushed to death. But I did rescue a few other people who I was able to drag out of their vehicle.”
After he watched the woman he was trying to save die, Chaney said his “brain kind of shut off.”
He remembers a second truck hit the growing pile-up at high speed. The crash became more dense as cars continued to pile on top of one another. Fires sprang from the wreckage, and Chaney turned toward the front of the crash site again.
A man started to yell for him and said a woman was trapped inside her car. She was on her phone and screaming. Chaney used his fists and a pocket blade to knock out her window and pull her out of the car. On a Facebook Live video posted after the crash, Chaney shows his bloodied, cut-up hands.
He helped the woman, who was not wearing a jacket, to his truck, then continued to walk through the crash. One trucker needed help getting out of the vehicle, which was smoking and dumping diesel. He walked away, thanking Chaney.
“Some of it, I don’t remember,” he said. “After that lady got crushed, I don’t remember much.”
In total, around 100 vehicles were part of the roughly mile-long wreckage, according to authorities.
Six people have been confirmed dead, and about 65 were injured.
Aftermath of crash
First responders started to show up to the crash. Chaney walked up and down the crash site in areas where he could get through and checked on people through their windows. He gave them a thumbs up and, if they gave him a thumbs up in return, he would move on. He helped a few more people out of their cars.
At about 7:30 a.m., a little over an hour after Chaney saw the first car hit a guardrail, he drove himself and the woman he pulled from her car away. He drove to the hospital — not to get medical attention, but because the woman worked in the medical field and knew the hospital where she worked would need her help.
At 7:34 a.m., he posted a Facebook Live explaining what happened. He described the crash as “a genocide of metal.”
Then, not knowing where else to go and in a state of shock, Chaney drove to work. He started to haul power poles for Sabre, and made a full loop of his usual route down to Alvarado and into Kennedale.
“I need to get paid. My bills don’t stop,” he said. “The highway was shut down and the only way I could go was to work.”
After his first loop, however, he realized he needed to go home. At about 2:45 p.m., he made it back to his house and started to try and process what happened.
“People called me a hero, but I’m just like no. It’s kind of fight or flight,” he said. “Either you leave or you stay and fight it out. And my instinct was to stay and see what I could do. I didn’t want to just pull out my phone and record like a pansy.”
He urged people to stop sharing photos and videos of the crash, warning that people might recognized a loved one’s car in the wreckage before they know what happened to them.
“Nobody needs to see that, especially people that were there that witnessed things,” he said. “Because then they relive it.”
He said he is “internally confused and sad,” and frustrated by the way people were trapped in the pile-up by the TEXpress lanes. The lanes require motorists to pay an electronic toll as a way to pay their way around congestion that chronically occurs near downtown Fort Worth.
“You’re trapped by two walls,” he said. “It was basically turned into a gigantic slip and slide.”