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Pinned by propane truck, woman escapes unscathed

Rescue workers
Rescue workers at a 120-vehicle accident in northwest Georgia.  

By Thom Patterson

RINGGOLD, Georgia (CNN) -- When the fog began rolling in early Thursday on Interstate 75, Joan Fort mindfully slowed down to 45 mph.

Moments later, she stopped with a bang, her car slammed into by a careering propane gas truck.

"I didn't have time to be scared," recalled Fort, on her way home to Ulysses, Kansas. "I just tried to swerve."

When authorities appeared, they told Fort to hold tight and assured her the propane truck was not leaking. Nearly three hours later, she emerged from the wreckage unscathed after rescue workers opened the passenger side door and pulled her out.

The accident, which involved more than 120 cars and trucks and killed at least four people about 17 miles south of Chattanooga, Tennessee, could have been much worse, said another accident survivor.

"If the propane truck involved in the accident had exploded, you would have seen many more deaths," said Lee Blake, a former Chattanooga deputy sheriff. "It's a miracle that more people didn't die, because a lot of them were in the (front) of the pileup."

Visibility a car's length

Blake compared Thursday's pileup to a 1990 crash on I-75 that killed 12 people in Calhoun, Tennessee.

"The one in Calhoun was just one side of the interstate," said Blake, who responded to that crash while in law enforcement. "The cars were on fire -- there were four tankers on fire."

Thick fog was a primary cause of both accidents. Visibility Thursday morning extended only a car's length, officials said.

The car of Barbara Truett, one of the drivers near the front of the accident, was demolished, but she -- like Fort and Blake -- escaped without injury.

"I was driving north on 75 when we hit this patch of fog and everyone just stopped," she recalled. "I heard the sound of the car, but I couldn't see it."

Just getting to the massive pile-up, which stifled traffic on both sides of I-75, proved a daunting task for rescue workers.

"Cars were piled around each other," said Blake, who had just dropped off his son at school before becoming involved in the crash. "It's like peeling an onion. You have to take it apart to get to the center."

Town, volunteers reach out

Betty Buckley was sitting in the dining room of her white clapboard house in Ringgold, Georgia, about 300 yards away from I-75, when the crash occurred.

"First there was a horrible boom -- really loud. It shook the house," Buckley said. She opened her blinds to a day wrapped in white. She could see nothing, but heard that sound, again and again: Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!

The accident shook the residents of Ringgold, a working-class town of around 2,000 people, many of whom commute to Chattanooga daily on I-75.

"I really feel for the families that lost people or got hurt," said Marsha Tullis, 55, a retired second-grade teacher and Ringgold resident. "It was horrible to watch it on TV and hear people describing the wrecks."

About a dozen survivors, including Blake and Fort, gathered at the Ringgold firehouse, where American Red Cross workers provided food, clothing, shelter and other assistance as needed.

Dennis Tate of the Red Cross said many survivors would likely be overwhelmed, confused and in pain -- both physically and emotionally. Counselors were at the scene, talking with and listening to survivors.




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