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Whiteout conditions cause multi-vehicle crash in central Minnesota

According to Nisswa Fire Chief Shawn Bailey, there were 23 vehicles involved in the crash, including three semitrailers.

Fireman walks among the stalled cars in a snowstorm.
A firefighter walks among damaged vehicles Friday, Feb. 18, 2022, at Hole-in-the-Day Drive in Nisswa after several vehicles crashed in whiteout conditions on Highway 371. Blowing snow reduced visibility in the area near Gull Lake.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
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NISSWA, Minn. — Strong wind gusts ripping across Gull Lake’s Hole-in-the-Day Bay brought whiteout conditions to state Highway 371, causing a multi-car crash just before noon on Friday and shutting down both lanes of the highway for most of the day.

The Nisswa Fire Department responded to the crash, reported at 11:53 a.m. north of Brainerd. According to Nisswa Fire Chief, Shawn Bailey, there were 23 vehicles involved in the crash, including three semitrailers.

The Minnesota State Patrol reported that a sudden snow squall with white-out conditions was to blame for sending three people to Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center for treatment of injuries.

Leroy Marvin Lorentz, 66, St. Peter, was driving a 2021 Ram 3500 truck. Lorentz, who was wearing a seat belt, was transported to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. No airbags deployed in Lorentz’s truck.

Wyatt Joseph Rech, 20, Akeley, was driving a 2019 Chevrolet Silverado. Rech, who was not wearing a seat belt, the state patrol reported, was transported to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. A passenger in Rech’s pickup, Kaylee Ann Halik, 20, Akeley, was wearing a seat belt and was transported to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. The Silverado’s airbags had deployed.

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School buses were brought in to transport any drivers.
School buses were driven to the scene to to transport any drivers or passengers away from the crash scene Friday, Feb 18, 2022.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Bailey said there were multiple people with injuries that did not require them to go to the hospital. About 15 people were transported to Nisswa’s fire station by Reichert’s Bus Service.

Heading southbound on Highway 371, Jack Peterson of Brainerd said when he came around the Hole-in-the-Day Bay corner, he couldn't see the front of his truck, it was a “total whiteout.”

“I saw it coming across the lake,” Peterson said. “I started to hit my breaks and then everything disappeared.”

Peterson was rear-ended after he came to a stop. He said that he was able to call his son, who had been following about five minutes behind, and tell him to turn around.

Aaron Baseman, who lives just east of Hole-in-the-Day Bay, drove through a short expanse of blowing snow where Gull Lake creates an opening in the trees as he traveled north on Highway 371 into the Nisswa. Vehicles slowed down for the conditions and were through the space quickly. It didn’t seem too bad. Past the lake the roads were clear to the north and south, he said.

The return trip was a different story.

On the way home and in the inner southbound lane on Highway 371, Baseman slowed in anticipation of the blowing snow as the sign for Hole-in-the-Day approached. To his right, he saw another car nearly stopped in traffic and he thought don’t do that — don’t stop in these conditions, keep moving and just watch for what’s in front.

Law enforcement around accident
Emergency Personnel work their way through several smashed vehicles Friday. Feb. 18, 2022, at Hole-in-the-Day Bay on Highway 371 in Nisswa. Blowing snow made travel difficult on Highway 371 causing whiteout conditions and multiple crashes and a pileup.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

As he turned his head to do just that, he saw a semitractor-trailer with another truck crushed underneath it just ahead of him.

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“So I had to react in like a split second,” Baseman said. “And I started sliding sideways. I was about ready to plow into those trucks so I floored my truck and went into the center median and buried it in there and then after that I heard crash and bang and crash and bang behind me.”

Outside his truck windows, Baseman could at times see the nearby vehicles and other times when the blowing snow left him entirely isolated in a complete whiteout.

“It was just incredible,” he said. “Then the firetrucks started showing up and the ambulances started showing up and Jaws of Life. There's two different people with Jaws of Life life getting people out of trucks and cars that were crashed and oh my gosh. Horrible. I have never experienced anything like that before.”

With his truck buried in the median fairly close to the northbound lanes, Baseman watched as the northbound vehicles went by going slow for conditions and to look at the mayhem. But then as cars were spinning around in front of him, he had a new worry. With no more sound of crashes behind him, concern of unseen vehicles slamming into him from behind abated and turned to those going by in the northbound lanes.

“It was scary,” he said. “It was very scary to sit there and not see what was happening. …It was just horrendous.”

As he waited in his truck, the wind continued to howl where the bay opened up on the lake.

“It sounded like a train and it was just a big howl — just unreal.”

Baseman waited in his truck until he could be transported to the Nisswa Fire Department. He had heat and said he was fine, and the emergency responders checked on him several times.

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He watched as a first responder, on the scene in her regular clothes, rushed to the aid of a person injured in the vehicle crushed under the semitrailer, which was about 10 feet away. The first responder got the door open and pulled the airbag aside to reveal an injured person. And every so often he could see a nearby vehicle with a woman and two children in car seats who were taken to an ambulance.

“The responders and everyone that showed up, I mean, they were in brutal elements and crusty with ice and snow around them and they were just machines, they were going to everybody and checking on everybody and they were being as efficient as they could with it and I thanked them many times because that was a tough thing for them to do today and so cold.”

Bailey said that the Nisswa Fire Department was on scene by 11:56 a.m. and that they were closing down the highway as they approached the crash.

“I couldn't see the length of a car in front of me,” said Chuck Dullum, a Nisswa firefighter.

Eric Myhra, with North Memorial Health Ambulance, was assisting at the scene and telling drivers to stay in their vehicles.

“By the time I walked to the next car, I couldn't see the car I was just standing next to,” Myhra said, adding he had never seen anything like it before. “It looked like cars just stopped in the snow.”

Heading home from work, Jonathan Johnson was southbound on Highway 371 and said he couldn't see 5 feet in front of his truck. Everything was gone, he said, then as if appearing out of nowhere, there was a squad car directly in front of his truck.

Johnson said he tried to avoid hitting the officer’s vehicle. Though unsuccessful, he did say it was his first time rear-ending a squad car.

The National Weather Service in Duluth Thursday warned of the potential for a snow squall event, which can cause sudden whiteout conditions creating dangerous driving conditions, including multi-vehicle crashes. Blizzard warnings were issued for western Minnesota, including Wadena, Todd and Morrison counties. The weather service warned of the potential for lingering snow squalls Friday night into early Saturday morning.

West to northwest wind gusts of 35-45 mph were expected Friday with isolated gusts up to 50 mph. Brainerd was expected to have wind gusts up to 40 mph Friday but lessening throughout the night into Saturday. Cold temperatures will continue with 28 below wind chill expected Friday night as the air temperature drops to 11 degrees below.

More snow is possible Saturday into Sunday and a prolonged period of snow may begin Monday, the weather service reported.

Related Topics: ACCIDENTSNISSWABRAINERD
Tim Speier joined the Brainerd Dispatch in October 2021, covering Public Safety.
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