Stories of the Highway Patrol
The Day Those 69 Cars Hit
Author Unknown - Published in Overseas Weekly, 2-6-1955.
Heidelberg - Car parts and statistics still are being sorted here in an effort to find out what happened that foggy afternoon when 69 cars piled up in less than two hours to set a new high in accident happy West Germany.
When the dense fog finally lifted over the eight kilometer stretch of the autobahn, weary police chalked up more than 29 separate accidents, one death, 11 serious injuries, and 30 first aid injuries.
Trucks, trailers, cows, shiny Mercedes and OD staff-cars were littered up and down the road where they had piled into the fog and each other. The particular stretch where the accordion-like chain reaction accidents took place carries one of the heaviest loads in that area, serving Heidelberg-Mannheim and Karlsruhe-Frankfurt.
The first report hit the tense office of Det. B, 62 MP Co., Highway Patrol, near the gas station at about 2:20 PM that dark, foggy Thursday afternoon.
M Sgt. John C. McCardem, Hq. Co., 291 Sig. Bn. stopped in and told Desk Sgt. William Matthews that he had seen at least four cars all piled up near the Heidelberg cut-off, with a women lying in the road.
Matthews, who had been giving routine weather reports until then, dispatched Pfc. Charles R. Bow and Pvt. Glen E. Kline to Kilometer Post 574, and then started fighting two telephones which didn't stop jumping for the next two hours.
Patrolmen Bow spotted another four car accident at KP 572, sent in the emergency signal and the race against time was on.
The CO of the detachment, 1st Lt. John J. Peterson, double checked that the automatic alert to the nearby German Land Police had gone out, called his Provost Marshal, Lt. Col. Henry Becker, whose office was still out of the fog, and then went out to take a look.
I think they all happened about the same time, Peterson said later. I called out everybody. The 382nd MP Bn. offered help and we had them start heading cars oft-the highway.
During the next two hours we used l ,500 flares trying to slow cars down. Many times our patrolmen had to jump out of the way of fast moving cars.
Peterson's blotter shows that by 4 PM ,21 American vehicles had been involved in 13 separate accidents, many of which involved German vehicles. Almost every accident followed the accordion, hit- from-the-rear, pattern. Many cars were severely damaged, and at least one truck-hit Army sedan was a total $1,500 loss. No American lives were lost, but patrolmen rendered a lot of first aid assistance that day.
By 3 PM, Becker had surveyed the scene and was conferring with the local commissar of the German Land Police. He and the commissar decided to close the road to further traffic at that time, an official said. The Highway Patrolmen are still a little burned up about the widely circulated news story which said that it took two hours to get the traffic under control with the implication that they were late on the scene.
“We were on top of it from the beginning, but we had no control over the fog, or drivers feet on the gas pedals,'' a patrolman said.
Peterson told this story; I was trying to get an ambulance to an injured man, I had been to the accident, and was hanging on the running board, but we still drove right by the wreck, which was in fog just across the center strip. In one accident a truck and trailer filled with cattle had cracked up.
Peterson remembers seeing a white-coated German butcher drive by on a scooter, carrying a shiny knife and asking patrolmen where the cows were.
A German paper, the Rhine-Neckar Zeitung, described the scene this way; “We saw fire trucks, ambulances, wreckers, green land police cars and white American cars with bright flashing red lights dimmed by the fog. “Nervous drivers stood beside their demolished cars, unable to hold cigarettes, while nearby sedans stood on end and trucks with mashed-in fronts stood locked together.''
“Then came the small, live-wire American colonel (Becker) wearing a brown trench-coat as he jumped from his car to be briefed. The MP never turned his head from the road as he quickly gave the colonel a rum-down on the situation.”
“Almost every accident that day was caused because people refused to drive by road conditions”, Peterson said. “When you can't see a car you can hear close by, it should be time to slow down”, he said.
Peterson made these suggestions, “Highway Patrolmen are always happy to give road condition reports either on the telephone, or personally. We answer about 48 of these calls a day here, and would prefer that it doubled during bad weather if it prevented accidents.”
If a driver hits a dense fog pocket, we suggest he look for a park plate, or pull off the road, --way off. Drivers should avoid stopping on the autobahn itself unless under police control. Don't leave your vehicles. If traffic is moving send a message with the next driver, or go to an autobahn network telephone and call in.
These calls are immediately connected with the land police switchboard. Even if you don't speak German just say auto kaput, or benzine alle, and they will get it. Each phone is registered by kilometer post. They call us immediately. If you send in a message be sure and tell us by which mileage post the car is. If you see a Highway Patrolmen, or an MP, stop, or follow his directions. If you see a German policeman, do the same. Sometimes we are controlling traffic for them and sometimes vice versa. In any case, we are usually there for a reason.”
This story previously appeared in Volume # 2, Issue # 5, December 1999 of "THE WHITE MICE"