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Investigators, Victims Still Seeking Answers to Tennessee Pileup

December 10, 1991

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) _ Every day Ray Whitlock drives from his home in Athens to Chattanooga, where he works as captain of the Tennessee Highway Patrol’s southeastern district.

And every day, as he passes Exit 36 on Interstate 75 near Calhoun, Whitlock can’t help but remember the fateful, fatal events that occurred there nearly a year ago.

″I’ve thought about it quite often - quite often - when I go through there,″ Whitlock said softly.

On the morning of Dec. 11, 1990, nearly 100 cars and trucks plowed into each other in a fog-shrouded stretch of I-75 about 40 miles northeast of Chattanooga.

Twelve people were killed, some of them so badly burned and mangled that officials initially thought the toll was higher. Fifty others were injured.

″There were trucks burning, cars smashed to smithereens,″ Jeff Bolduc, a volunteer fireman, said in the hours after the grisly chain-reaction pileup. ″It was a mess.″

A year later, federal investigators and victims alike are still asking why.

An early investigation showed the accident may have begun when a southbound truck slowed down in heavy fog near the exit and was rear-ended by another truck.

Seventy-two vehicles, including 20 tractor-trailers and other trucks, smashed into each other in the southbound lanes, and 10 people died. In the northbound lanes, two people were killed and 27 vehicles were damaged.

Two highway signs with blinking yellow lights warn of fog in the area, but only one sign was turned on at the time of the crash, officials said. Tennessee Safety Commissioner Robert Lawson said drivers may have been traveling too fast for the weather conditions.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the accident and probably won’t release its conclusions until early next year, NTSB spokesman Mike Benson said.

The report has been delayed because the NTSB wants to include findings from three fog-related pileups that occurred this year in Utah and California, Benson said.

Nearly 30 lawsuits have been filed.

Most of the plaintiffs - either victims or relatives of victims - blame Bowater Southern Inc., which operates a paper mill a couple of miles from the accident site.

They contend Bowater contributed to the crash because steam from the paper mill’s warm water holding ponds created the fog or made it thicker.

The stretch of I-75 has been notorious for fog since the highway opened in December 1973. From March 1974 to April 1979, there were six fog-related accidents in the area, killing six people, injuring 86 others and damaging 126 vehicles.

After last year’s pileup, Bowater spokeswoman Astrid Sheil denied the paper mill contributed to the fog, which she called a natural phenomenon of the area.

On Friday, Ms. Sheil said Bowater couldn’t comment because of the pending lawsuits. Bowater’s attorneys didn’t return telephone calls from The Associated Press.

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