Crash sets off fireworks, quick response douses danger and reopens roads

Illinois Tollway emergency responders used to handling roadway crashes, fires and medical crises know that fireworks can erupt at any time—literally.

Last month, a commercial truck slammed into a barrier wall on the Tri-State Tollway (I-294), igniting its cargo of fireworks and triggering a fire so intense it shut down northbound I-294 and also closed St. Charles Road as flames scorched the underside of the bridge carrying it over the toll road.

But a rapid response to the June 4 crash on northbound I-294 by Tollway roadway workers, Illinois State Police and local fire departments quickly stabilized the situation and safely diverted other drivers away from the flames, which also forced the closure of the ramp connecting I-290 to St. Charles Road.

Despite the intensity of the early-morning blaze, Tollway crews were able to partially reopen northbound I-294 in about 3 hours, and had all lanes reopened later that day.

Working with its engineers and the Illinois Department of Transportation, the Tollway was able to conduct testing to determine that beams supporting St. Charles Road where it crosses I-294 were still intact, which allowed the road and I-290 ramp to open the following day.

“This was a dangerous and extremely unusual situation, but our roadway workers, Illinois State Police and other emergency responders reacted quickly and professionally to protect our customers,” said Illinois Tollway Executive Director José Alvarez. “The outstanding work performed by everyone in this operation demonstrates the skill and cooperation we rely on to rapidly react to emergencies to keep our customers safe.”

Following the crash, Tollway road workers within minutes shut down northbound I-294 to keep drivers away from the burning vehicle and then began diverting vehicles onto nearby I-290 to keep traffic from coming to a standstill and slowing other emergency responders rushing to the scene. Some southbound lanes of I-294 also were closed to allow emergency vehicles—particularly fire engines—to approach the crash from that direction and get close enough to help extinguish the flames.

“We moved a lot of units to the scene very quickly and that was critical in keeping other drivers away from the crash and providing enough room so firefighters could get in to knock down the fire,” said Steve Mednis, the Tollway’s general manager of traffic and incident management.

Some vehicles on northbound I-294 that were blocked by the crash had to be turned around and evacuated out of the area for their own safety. The driver whose truck crashed escaped with minor injuries, and no other drivers or rescue workers were hurt.

After firefighter extinguished the stubborn fire, heavy-lift tow trucks that had staged nearby on a ramp move in to pull the charred truck out from under the St. Charles Road overpass and off I-294.

Tollway consultants inspected the barrier wall and pavement for crash and fire damage. A temporary crash attenuator barrier in place for construction had to be replaced but inspections found only superficial pavement damage that didn’t require any resurfacing work.

Lift trucks were brought in so engineers could inspect the scorched underside of St. Charles Road and take core samples of beams supporting the bridge to ensure they remained structurally sound. After the testing revealed the beams were intact, St. Charles Road and the ramp connecting it to I-290 were reopened the day after the crash.

“You hope you won’t have to deal with extreme situations like this but it is satisfying when our response goes smoothly and we’re able to protect our customers and reopen our roads within a matter of hours,” Mednis said.

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