CHANNAHON TOWNSHIP – Five people are dead after two separate collisions Monday involving semitrailers in the Interstate 55 construction zone at the Des Plaines River Bridge.
Four people were killed when a semitrailer rear-ended three vehicles that had backed up in the northbound lanes near Arsenal Road at 2:17 p.m. Monday. Illinois State police only identified them all as female.
A second collision happened at 2:33 p.m. in the southbound lanes near Route 6 when one semitrailer rear-ended another. Police were still investigating that incident Monday night.
Both drivers in the second accident were hospitalized, but initially there were no reports of serious injuries. State police announced at a news conference Monday night that one person died from the second accident due to medical problems.
Will County Coroner Patrick K. O'Neil said the victims' identities were being withheld Monday until their families could be notified.
Witnesses told police that the semitrailer in the first accident was traveling at a high rate of speed – higher than the posted speed limit of 55 miles per hour – passing stopped cars in the left lane.
"The reduced speeds are well-marked for miles," state police District Commander Randy Ness said at the news conference.
Then the semitrailer abruptly switched lanes and rear-ended the three vehicles, which were stopped because traffic was backed up due to construction work on the Des Plaines River Bridge, according to authorities.
The accident occurred in the northbound lanes immediately south of mile marker 243.5 near the ExxonMobil plant.
State police District Commander Randy Ness did not reveal the identity of the driver of the semitrailer, but said at the night news conference the driver was undergoing mandatory blood and urine tests for illegal substances.
The red semitrailer that was carrying a flatbed trailer suffered heavy front-end damage. A nearby green Kia was mangled on both sides and entangled on the passenger side with the back of a red car. A few yards away a vehicle had overturned in a ditch on the side of the road with two victims inside, according to police at the scene.
Police said two of the deceased were the driver and rear passenger in a green Kia, one was the front passenger of a Chevy van and the last victim was in a Dodge vehicle.
Traffic was diverted while the interstate and nearby frontage road were filled with emergency vehicles. Patients were taken from the scene by helicopter. Ambulances from Coal City, East Joliet and Minooka were among those at the scene.
This is the second year of the Des Plaines River Bridge construction project. In 2013, there were 12 injury crashes, including two fatalities, due to sudden backups in the construction corridor.
State Rep. Larry Walsh, D-Elwood, worked with state Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Joliet, in a committee last year to address traffic concerns in the construction zones surrounding the project.
A study led to portable "Smart Monitor" signs that tell motorists the time it takes to get through the zone and if they should seek alternate routes.
"I think we've done everything we possibly could," Walsh said Monday, recounting discussions state legislators have had with the Mid-West Truckers Association and Illinois Trucking Association. "We've told them to get the word out to their drivers and make sure that they're safe coming into the zone. This was an unfortunate chain of events."
Walsh, who said Monday afternoon that he couldn't comment specifically until more details from the crashes emerge, said the incident is going to be a factor in future talks about construction zones and trucking.
"Right now, thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victims," he said.