RAWLINS — By the time Fernando and Carlos saw the livestock trailer, it was too late. The two non-English-speaking motorists from Mexico quickly became another pileup statistic.
Like many roads in Wyoming on Sunday, March 1, their lane was caked with ice and slush. Visibility was dangerously low. Not to mention, they were heading westbound on one of the most high-traffic transport routes in the country.
And when they needed them most, their brakes malfunctioned. With Fernando at the wheel, their half-ton “dually” pickup veered into the livestock trailer beside them. As the dually’s nose veered into the livestock trailer, another semi-tractor trailer lost control, veering into them.
The inertia of dozens of vehicles sliding across slick roads did the rest. Cars, trucks and bigger trucks collided together like a metal accordion, piling up on Interstate 80 near Wamsutter.
In the end, at least 140 vehicles were essentially totaled. At least 30 injured motorists were taken to a Rawlins hospital. Three people died.
Area ranchers and the Carbon County Fairgrounds, meanwhile, took in the stranded cattle, which escaped from either one of seven confirmed livestock trailers to have crashed during the pileup.
In Fernando and Carlos’ case, they narrowly escaped death. As additional vehicles were bound to collide with this immobilized brigade of metal, it didn’t help that the front doors were crushed in by jackknifed trailers. So the two 20-something-year-olds decided to crawl into the back seat, which allowed them to escape.
“As soon as they got out of the truck, they stepped over to the middle of the highway,” said Ricardo Chavez, a Rawlins Times contributor, translating for the two young Hispanic men. “They stayed there for a couple minutes. They could see the trucks piling up behind them.”
On a windy, face-burning Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours later, Fernando and Carlos are sat around a table in the break room of the Wyoming Department of Corrections Training Academy, a brick armory across Third Street from the Rawlins cemetery.
Their expressions were alert, but their faces did not bear the injuries of many drivers and passengers involved in the accident.
Outside the break room in the armory gymnasium, a man with a freshly bandaged arm and scabbed abrasions near his right eye slept curled into the fetal position on a cot provided by the American Red Cross. He’s surrounded by a collection of cots just like his. They’re covered with things like donated blankets, toiletries and pillows enveloped in plastic cases.
The armory, which usually houses DOC trainees conducting exercises, was transformed into a shelter for those involved in the accident. Following the pileup, school buses ferried motorists to shelters in Rock Springs and Rawlins. Volunteers from the Red Cross, local grocery stores and restaurants donated food and medical care items.
Carlos and Fernando, who didn’t provide last names for this article, agreed they were lucky to eat again.
“Through it all they saw, like, trucks that split other trucks,” Chavez translated. “... I guess one of the saddest things… they could hear, like, people screaming for help between the carnage.”
Sitting at a table next to Fernando and Carlos was a veteran, middle-aged trucker. He said his name was Steve, and didn’t give a last name for “legal reasons.” Wearing a reflective, neon road vest, his beard was a scruffy layer of blond bristles.
“Hey, it’s free food,” he said, stacking cold cuts of meat onto a slice of white bread. “I can’t complain… it’s not French cuisine or anything like that.”
Steve explained he was on his way to drop off some freight in Salt Lake City when he collided with the tail end of the pileup.
“I don’t recall any warning, no flashing lights on the cars that were parked, no stop lights... nobody on the CB radio said anything about ‘westbound slow down, slow down, there’s a pileup,’” he exclaimed. “I guess the pileup was there for awhile before I got there.”
Despite below freezing temperatures, Steve cut the motor for fear of a gas leak.
“I rather it be cold than really, really hot,” he said. “I was trapped in my truck for several hours.”
After a truck embedded in his was separated by the fire department, Steve escaped his chilly cab and soaked in the destruction scattered across the interstate.
“It was a circus,” he recalled, between bites of his sandwich. “There was more people walking around with their cell phones taking pictures than anything else.”
Steve didn’t make it to the shelter in Rawlins until 3 a.m. Monday. Finishing his sandwich on Monday afternoon, however, he said he wasn’t tired.
Despite surviving something that might cause a person to switch careers, Steve said he was ready to get back on the road. After the shelter, he said he planned to head to a truck stop where he could find a “loaner” rig and point its grill toward Salt Lake City.
For Carlos and Fernando, meanwhile, they said a friend was on his way from Denver to pick them up. But, they’d be back for their dually, which still contained their belongings and luggage.