When you get behind the wheel, you take your life into your hands. Sure, we drive just about every day without incident, but it only takes one time for things to go horribly wrong. In this feature, we’ll tell ten stories of insane freak highway accidents that came out of nowhere and left a huge body count behind.
70 Car Pileup (Florida, 2008)
When visibility is impaired on the road, drivers should reduce speed and put their lights on to compensate. When fog and smoke blanketed a stretch of Interstate 4 on a January morning before dawn, it kicked off a cavalcade of crashes that turned into one of the most insane pileups ever. One of the first victims was a sheriff’s deputy, who turned his radio on so dispatch could hear the nightmarish sounds of vehicles crashing and exploding all around him. By the time the carnage had ended, 70 cars and trucks had crashed, six tractor-trailers had flipped and exploded, four people were dead and 38 were injured. It still stands as one of the worst highway accidents in American history.
Swamp Fire (New Jersey, 1973)
We don’t want to stereotype the people of New Jersey, but what other state could create a road disaster out of a burning swamp? Late in the evening of October 23, 1973, visibility on the New Jersey Turnpike was suddenly decreased by smoke from a swamp fire in the nearby Hackensack Meadowlands. Combined with a heavy fog that also hit the area, witnesses on the scene stated that they could barely see their hands in front of their face. Cars started to smash into each other in the dark, but the amazing thing is that police didn’t get to the scene and shut the Turnpike until almost 2:45 the next morning. Over those four hours, 66 vehicles impacted each other and nine people were killed.
Bus Collision (Kentucky, 1988)
You’ll find drunk or impaired drivers popping up on this list more than once, but no alcoholic caused an accident quite like Kentucky man Larry Wayne Mahoney did in May of 1988. Mahoney was driving home with a BAC of .24 — more than double the legal limit — when he crossed the centerline on Interstate 71 and veered into oncoming traffic. Mahoney’s truck hit a school bus chartered by a local Assembly of God church coming back from a trip to the King’s Island theme park. The gas tank exploded immediately while a shard of metal jammed the front door, preventing it from opening. The bus passengers tried to reach the back emergency door, but the crush of bodies and temperatures of over 200 degrees killed 27 of them and injured 34 others. Mahoney had no memory of the crash when he awoke the next day in the hospital.
Pipe Through the Chest (California, 2013)
There doesn’t need to be a huge body count for a highway accident to be truly terrifying. Sometimes all it takes is just one guy dying in an awful, unexpected way to make the list. Michael Cox was an ordinary salesman and father of three from Lodi, California, driving down the I-580 on his way to work in May 2013 when a metal pipe slipped from another vehicle on the freeway and rocketed straight through his windshield, impaling him as he was driving. He naturally lost control of his vehicle and came to a stop on the highway divider. When the California Highway Patrol showed up to investigate the incident, they found Cox dead at the wheel with the engine still running. Where the pipe came from remains a mystery.
Mega Pileup (Abu Dhabi, 2008)
The influx of wealth to the Arab world in the last few decades has made a lot of people very rich. And rich people like to buy cars. Unfortunately, when outside factors intervene, those cars can turn into hurtling coffins of metal and glass, as happened when a fog bank blanketed a road in Abu Dhabi in March of 2008. The main motorway between that city and Dubai was clogged with traffic when visibility dropped. Cars immediately began crashing into each other, overturning, catching on fire and exploding. Eleven commuter busses packed full of passengers were involved along with hundreds of cars. The carnage was so extensive that emergency response vehicles couldn’t penetrate the walls of wreckage to extract people. At the end of the day, four people were dead and 317 injured.
Sleeping Driver (United Kingdom, 1991)
Reports vary as to what was the true cause of the horrific multi-car pileup on the M4 motorway near Hungerford in March 1991. Most people claim that the driver of a van that skidded into the center median was asleep at the wheel, but other people believe he turned sharply to avoid hitting a pigeon. Whatever the reason, that one action kicked off a domino chain of automotive chaos that eventually involved 51 cars and killed ten people. The vehicles behind the van couldn’t slow down in time to avoid a crash, so they impacted with devastating force, creating an impassible wall of twisted metal. One driver got out of his car and started running down the road into traffic to warn other drivers, but amazingly they didn’t believe him and continued driving at full speed into the disaster. Then a van full of deodorant exploded, setting off multiple gas tanks around it and turning the scene into a blazing hell on Earth. The motorway was closed for four days to get all of the debris removed.
Bridge Collapse (Minnesota, 2007)
One of the scariest things to think about when you’re driving is the fact that a horrific accident could occur anywhere. It doesn’t have to be caused by another car, even. Sometimes the whole world can just fall out from under your wheels. Case in point: drivers on the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis were proceeding as normal on a clear, sunny August day when the central span of the eight-lane bridge suddenly gave way and plummeted into the water below, dragging the rest of the bridge with it. About 100 vehicles were on the bridge when it gave out, including a school bus full of children, and several trucks. Thirteen people were killed and dozens more were injured, both from the fall and from being tangled in bridge debris.
Dust Storm (California, 1991)
Here’s another insanely huge pileup that was caused by the errant hand of Mother Nature and shows how we’re all interconnected whether we like it or not. In 1991, California was in the middle of one of the worst droughts the state had ever seen, and by November the Central Valley was a dust bowl. On November 1, a storm blew in and raised blinding clouds of topsoil from thousands of acres of land, turning the sky into a soupy brown haze. The storm hit so suddenly that motorists on I-5 had no time to react before it was upon them, causing an insane accident that saw 93 cars and 11 big rigs smash into each other. First responders compared the scene to a war zone, with dirty, bedraggled people climbing out of burning vehicles and running to find some kind of shelter. The final body count was 14 dead and 114 injured.
Median Jump (Virginia, 1998)
This accident has less of a body count than some of the others on the list, but the circumstances are so bizarre and awful that it earned a spot. On July 4th, 1998, Kevin Chittum was heading to a county fair down Virginia’s notorious I-81, a stretch of road that has seen numerous serious accidents. In the car were Chittum’s fiancée and four other people. Since there was no room for Chittum’s three-year-old daughter, she was left with relatives. When a sudden storm hit the area, Chittum lost control of his vehicle and hit a bump that launched his car into the air and hydroplaning over the median, where it crashed head-first into a tractor trailer, killing everybody in the car and the truck driver. A shocking coda to this story is that just a month later the family learned that Chittum’s surviving daughter wasn’t his at all — she’d been accidentally switched with another baby at the hospital.
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259 Car Pileup (Germany, 2009)
One of the biggest highway accidents on our list comes from Germany, home of the famous Autobahn. All the precision car engineering in the world couldn’t stop chaos from erupting in July 2009, when heavy rains near Hanover turned the surface of the A2 motorway into an ice rink. Police say that drivers weren’t leaving enough room between cars to handle the road conditions, and when a pair of cars impacted with each other, it kicked off a domino rally of accidents that eventually involved 259 cars over the span of two hours. Miraculously, nobody was killed in the carnage, but 66 people were injured.