NDSU student escapes serious injury in one of two 14-vehicle pileups on I-94 in 4 days
Keatyn Skytland was involved in one of two chain reaction crashes that happened 4 days apart during whiteout conditions on Interstate 94 in North Dakota.
FARGO — Seeing photos of their son’s totaled car next to other wrecked vehicles scattered about a snowy Interstate 94, the parents of Keatyn Skytland can’t believe he made it out alive.
Skytland, a senior at North Dakota State University in Fargo, was one of at least four people injured in a 14-vehicle pileup a few miles west of Valley City on Friday, Feb. 18, when blowing snow created white-out conditions.
“The pictures make it look bad, obviously, but I’m feeling good, given the circumstances,” he said.
The 22-year-old suffered cuts, bruises and a sore neck, but it could have been much worse.
“It’s every parent’s nightmare, I’ll tell you that,” said Rod Skytland, Keatyn’s father.
The chain reaction crash on westbound I-94 at about 10:30 a.m. Friday began when a commercial vehicle rear-ended a pickup towing a snowmobile trailer, causing the pickup and trailer to jackknife on the roadway, the Patrol said.
Just three days later, law enforcement and emergency responders dealt with another mass crash, very similar to the scenario near Valley City.
On Monday, Feb. 21, another 14-vehicle pileup occurred during poor visibility along I-94; this time about 40 miles to the east, between Casselton and Mapleton.
Six motorists were hurt, including a 69-year-old woman from Casselton who sustained serious but not life-threatening injuries.
“It will be days before we know everyone that was involved and piece this together,” said Highway Patrol Lt. Troy Hischer.
Snow and blowing snow created icy roads and near-zero visibility Friday in northeast and east-central North Dakota and west-central Minnesota.
The circumstances in both mass crashes were similar: A driver or drivers slowed or stopped their vehicle when they couldn’t see the road, then were hit from behind.
Others coming up on the scene then crashed into the disabled vehicles, the Patrol said.
Interstates in North Dakota have been closed multiple times during stretches of bad weather this winter, during which the Grand Forks office of the National Weather Service has issued 10 blizzard warnings.
The roadways were open when the pileups occurred, but travel was not advised due to the conditions.
Capt. Bryan Niewind, commander of the Southeast Region, said the Highway Patrol works in conjunction with the North Dakota Department of Transportation to assess current and forecast weather and road conditions and traffic patterns.
He said decisions to close roads are made by the Patrol and local law enforcement agencies on a case-by-case basis.
Most of the time, roads are closed when plows aren’t able to keep them cleared and snow keeps drifting back in.
The Patrol will also take that action when visibility is reduced severely over large sections of roadway, making it dangerous to the traveling public and emergency responders.
“The goal of road closures is to prevent crashes from happening,” Niewind said.
Keatyn Skytland thought travel might be okay for a trip home to Mandan for a long weekend last Friday.
A blizzard warning had been issued due to an expected ground blizzard, a situation where high winds blow around old snow, limiting visibility.
Making his way west that morning, the surface of I-94 was fine, he said, but visibility wasn’t great. Even so, he was able to see vehicles in front of him, perhaps a quarter to half mile down the road.
That changed shortly after he passed Valley City.
A major wind gust caused a complete whiteout, and suddenly, Keatyn’s 2015 Subaru Legacy slammed into the back of a FedEx semi stopped on the interstate.
Within about 30 seconds, his car was struck from behind by another vehicle.
Keatyn quickly decided to exit the car, fearing it would be hit again. Luckily, he was able to get the door open and run into the interstate median.
He didn’t stay long, though, because multiple vehicles had already slid into the median to avoid the crash.
Keatyn ran back to the FedEx semi and jumped into the cab.
“I didn't want to be kind of a sitting duck,” he said.
He thinks his car was hit at least once more while he sat in the cab of the semi.
He called his parents to say that he’d been in a crash and that his vehicle wasn’t driveable.
Rod Skytland, who’s worked in the insurance industry for years, asked his son to send a photo of the wrecked Subaru.
He and his wife, Lori, both cried when they saw the pictures.
“We knew that we were so close to losing him,” Rod Skytland said.
After being checked out by a doctor and spending the weekend resting at his parents’ house, Keatyn made his way back to Fargo and NDSU on Sunday, driving his dad’s pickup truck.
Rod Skytland said his family will think differently about driving in bad weather in the future, even if roads are open.
“It isn’t worth it,” he said.