Two truck drivers and a truck passenger died in the early hours of Friday morning in a wreck that shut down portions of the N.J. Turnpike for almost 17 hours
causing backups as long as 10 miles and jamming alternate routes through the next day’s evening commute.
The accident, which involved four trucks and a car, occurred at 1:10 a.m. near Mansfield Township in Burlington County when a tractor-trailer rammed into a 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier, which was shoved off the highway. The tractor trailer then smashed into a construction vehicle and trailer, setting off a scorching fire that burned for four hours and damaged the road so badly that a 16.5-mile stretch of the northbound highway was closed.
The Star-Ledger of Newark reported that hundreds of drivers were stuck in the middle of the night with no way to get off the Turnpike. “Many simply went to sleep in their vehicles,” the paper said. “Not until dawn were highway crews able to clear a path for the stalled motorists to drive off along the shoulder of the road. By then, service trucks had to respond to the scene to help drivers who had run out of gasoline or had drained their car batteries.”
According to the Star-Ledger, Arnold R. Johnson, 55, of Bridgeton, N.J., the driver of the tractor-trailer that crashed into the other vehicles was killed. The tractor belonged to Ryder Truck in Cherry Hill and the trailer with a load of Mystic ice tea, was owned by HLC Equipment Holdings in Vineland.
Two others died in the construction truck owned by John A. Russell Corp., Rutland, Vt. They were Joshua Nowak, 24, of Rutland and Brian Douglas, 26, of Grandville, N.Y. State Police did not know who was the driver; in fact, the destruction was so complete that police were initially unaware that there were two trucks, not one involved in the fire.
“The two burning trucks pushed into a tractor-trailer from Philadelphia carrying kitty litter, which then hit a fourth truck driven by a man from Tennessee. Neither of those drivers were seriously hurt, and the kitty litter actually absorbed some of the diesel fuel that had spilled on the road,” the Ledger reported.
Amazingly, the driver of the Cavalier, the first vehicle hit, got out of the car before it was engulfed in the fire and sustained only minor injuries.
Turnpike spokesman Joe Orlando told the New York Times that most of the debris was removed by 10:30 a.m. Friday, but it took until late afternoon for crews to mill, repave and repaint the asphalt.
"I cannot remember the last time we had a closure of this duration and magnitude," Mr. Orlando said.