Lee White did the prudent thing before making the trip from Longview to Vancouver Thursday morning. He checked the road conditions and looked at the Washington State Department of Transportation traffic cameras along the route. Although they looked good about 9 a.m., he left early to allow himself enough time to get his wife, Sherri, to her 10:45 a.m. doctor appointment.
With snow caking the highway and more falling by the time he reached Battle Ground, White slowed down, downshifting his 2000 Toyota Camry.
“I looked up ahead and just saw white,” he said. Seconds later, the scene unfolded in front of him as he saw vehicles ahead fishtail. He slammed on his brakes, but it didn’t stop him from crashing.
“I couldn’t even tell you what we hit,” White, 49, said.
His Camry was one of 28 vehicles involved in the crash Thursday morning on Interstate 5 near the Gee Creek Rest Area. The chain-reaction crash killed Matthew S. Scott, 39, of Tualatin, Ore., critically injured one person and seriously injured two others.
Troopers were out at the accident site past sunset, trying to determine exactly what happened. Weather obviously played a significant part in the crash, but it could be months before investigators figure out the cause, said State Patrol Lt. Jason Linn. In a complex crash like Thursday’s, there are many witnesses and multiple events to piece together.
Linn said Thursday was the busiest day he’s ever seen for the agency’s southwest Washington district.
Lee’s wife, Sherri White, was one of those with serious injuries. When Lee White had looked over at his wife, he saw her bleeding from her head and losing consciousness. For a few moments, he was worried she wasn’t going to survive.
“You’re sitting in what used to be the driver’s seat of your car, covered in glass with your wife sitting next to you … just a few feet away, watching her suffer,” he said. “You really can’t do anything about it. … I kept saying, ‘Stay with me, stay with me, stay awake.'”
He said he was thankful for the organized and quick work by the first responders. One firefighter had managed to get into his Camry’s back seat and stabilized Sherri White’s neck.
She was taken to PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center, where patients with more serious injuries were taken, Lee White said. Patients who suffered less serious injuries, like Lee White, who suffered some bumps and bruises, were taken to Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center.
With the couple’s only car totaled and no taxis available, Lee White took three city buses to get to his wife. She underwent surgery Thursday and fortunately, her injuries weren’t as bad as they first appeared, Lee White said. With his wife doing better, Lee White spent a good part of Friday getting back to Longview, taking an Amtrak train home to feed their cat, Dinger. Having lived in Longview less than a year, White said he didn’t have anyone to call to help him out.
“I think she’s doing well enough that I feel OK to leave her,” he said. “It’s not something I want to do. But there’s nobody there to unlock our house and feed the cat.”
His wife has multiple sclerosis, so he worries about her recovery from this crash. He said he didn’t sleep at all Thursday night, playing the crash over and over in his mind.
“I wish I had slowed down a mile earlier,” he said. “It’s going to be a long road back, but she’s alive.”
Thursday’s crash was the largest of many others reported not only along the I-5 corridor but also on other highways in Clark County. The large crash, which involved between six and seven tractor-trailers, closed the freeway for a few hours, creating a ripple effect of hectic traffic.
Bettina Fitzgerald lives in Orchards but commutes to Longview for work. She was at work on Thursday when she heard news of the crash and the freeway closure. Although she had planned to leave work at 11 a.m., she waited until 1:30 p.m. to leave work.
“It took me 6 hours and 20 minutes to get home,” Fitzgerald said. “My commute normally takes 45 minutes.”
Not sure of how to get to Orchards by way of back roads, she stuck to the highway.
Near Woodland, the windshield wipers of her car stopped working, but she was able to blast her defroster and make it home. During the long commute, she worried about running out of gas.
“I came really close,” she said. “It was a very tense six hours.”
Columbian reporter Patty Hastings contributed to this report.