Morton, IL Chain Reaction Crash, Feb 1981
COLLISION, FIREBALL KILL NINE - BLINDING FOG BLAMED.
Morton (AP) - A chain-reaction collision in blinding fog claimed the lives of nine persons - some from Lincoln and Hartsburg - Thursday when their van exploded in a fireball 30 feet high, police said.
The victims in the van were burned beyond recognition, state troopers said. Eight were in a car pool en route to the Caterpillar Tractor Co. plant in Morton.
State Trooper Robert K. James said the string of disabled vehicles and smoldering wreckage in the dense fog was like aircraft crashes he witnessed in battle in Vietnam -
"the worst I've ever seen."
Police said the crash occurred about 7 a.m. on Illinois 121 at the height of the morning rush hour. The highway is a main artery for workers at the Caterpillar operation.
The dead included JAMES KOCH, 44, who was driving a pickup, police said.
Tazewell County Assistant Coroner Phil Ott identified the occupants of the van as Emden residents MARION L. RUSHING, 54; DONALD W. HARMS, 54; and LELAND E. MAMMEN, 61; Hartsburg residents LAWRENCE J. LEESMAN, 56; HOWARD D. PAYNE, 50; RUDOLPH H. LOLLING, 43; and EDWARD SEAMAN, 38; and CHRIS RAWLINGS, 26, of Lincoln.
According to eyewitnesses and police, a van stopped on the highway and was attempting to turn onto Allentown Road when it was struck from behind by a tractor trailer rig, which plowed head-on into another van. The second van spun around and collided with a pickup driven by KOCH. An oncoming Volkswagen Rabbit then slammed into the van, igniting the fiery explosion.
A witness reported the driver of the Rabbit emerged from the vehicle after the crash, the returned to retrieve a lunch bucket and a Bible before stumbling to the side of the highway where he slumped down with his head bowed on his knees.
"This thing happened in dense fog, I mean dense, like 10 yards of visibility," said Sgt. Jerald Vale of the state police.
At one point in the mid-morning collision, a fire truck responding to the initial crash collided with several other vehicles in the fog, according to Wilson, who stopped his car near the crash site and sent up flares to warn approaching motorists.
"You just could not see what was going on," Vale said.
Herald and Review Decatur Illinois 1981-02-20