Dozens of cars were involved Sunday in two separate pileups that killed two people on a foggy stretch of highway just east of the city.
The Wisconsin State Patrol shut down Interstate 90 in both directions, causing a traffic backup for miles.
Flares lining the interstate's lanes cut through the fog as traffic crawled north of the accident sites. Visibility was about 100 yards. Squad cars and tow trucks streamed toward the accidents as law enforcement agents directed drivers off the interstate.
The accidents happened on a stretch of eastbound Interstate 90 running south from the Badger Interchange with Interstate 94, Dane County sheriff's Lt. Dan Bolch said.
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Around 2:30 p.m., cars began breaking when they hit a wall of fog near Interstate 90's intersection with U.S. Highway 12/18, Wisconsin State Patrol Lt. Laurie Steeber said. A semi-truck came up behind them and began plowing into vehicles, she said. One person was killed.
A similar pileup happened three miles away when another group of vehicles on the interstate also began breaking in fog, Steeber said. A second person was killed in that pileup.
"One of my sergeants described it as a war scene," Steeber said.
She estimated three dozen vehicles were involved in the two pileups but said the count continued Sunday evening.
Thirty-five people were taken to Madison hospitals, three with life-threatening injuries, she said.
Erik Kispert, 23, and his brother, Isak Kispert, 16, of Valparaiso, Ind., were returning with Lizet Zuniga, 21, of Hammond, Ind., from a weekend of skiing at Rib Mountain in Wausau.
Erik Kispert estimated he was going between 65 and 75 mph when he saw brake lights ahead in the fog.
He said he stepped on the brakes but there was "absolutely nothing we can do."
He rear-ended the car ahead. Then his vehicle was promptly hit from behind, sending it spinning. Isak Kispert suffered a gash to his scalp and Zuniga hurt her back.
Fearing they would be hit again, the trio fled the car and headed into a field off the interstate. The fog blocked their view but they could hear more crashes.
"It just sounded like a sickening, dull thud," Erik Kispert said. "We were terrified. Worst thing I've ever been a part of."
Emergency officials bused them and others to the nearby Wingate Inn, where they could stay for the evening. Dozens of people filed in clutching their children and belongings as state patrol authorities interviewed them and took headcounts. Many wore tired and still-stunned looks on their faces. The Red Cross provided snacks and counseling Sunday night. Officials also set up an aid station in the hotel lobby for people who were injured.
Sharon Hatch, 46, of Lodi, planned to stay at the hotel Sunday with her 12-year-old son John, and her 10-year-old daughter, Faith. The family was not hit in the accidents, but they saw pieces of cars littered the interstate and demolished vehicles sat in the ditches. Hatch said while driving she saw a semi trailer "just barreling through the ditch" on her left and to her right, another semi trailer began to crowd her in. Behind her, she said, was a 20-car pileup.
The family got out of their car and went inside a charter bus behind them, where they watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and used the bathroom.
Hatch said her children hoped they'd miss school on Monday because of the crashes, but Faith said, "there wasn't anything cool about it."
"People were getting hurt all around us," she said.
Ed Werner, 38, of Monona, said he was returning from Janesville and saw a Trailblazer on top of a Mustang.
"I think people were going a little too fast. People were still passing us in the fog," said Werner, who was at the hotel Sunday night with his 12-year-old daughter Ashley.
Jim Kriecha, 58, of St. Charles, Ill., told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that people were driving about 60 mph when they started slamming their brakes in the heavy fog.
"People didn't slow down and just started to slam into everything," he said.
His vehicle was hit three times — from behind, on the side, and in front. His wife, Doretta Kriecha, 54, was taken to St. Mary's Hospital Medical Center after she struck her head.
The couple had left early because of the weather to return from their cabin in Arkdale.
"We thought we'd take our time and look what happens," Kriecha said.
The Madison area was fogged in all day, with visibility of one-eighth of a mile or less when the pileup started, said Chris Franks, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sullivan. The snow on the ground combined with a warm wind from the south to create the fog, which was expected to linger through Monday morning, Franks said.