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Drivers wonder whether I-84 lane closures contributed to crash that killed 4

Two brothers help children and victims in fiery fatal crash

Josh and Matt Thompson were just a few cars ahead of a fatal crash on Interstate 84. They stopped to help.
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Josh and Matt Thompson were just a few cars ahead of a fatal crash on Interstate 84. They stopped to help.

The night before four people died in the fatal crash on Interstate 84, a Boise woman called 911 to warn of "an accident waiting to happen."

“We’re on the interstate, and they’ve got this stupid blockade going, and they’ve got people flying down on the left-hand lane that’s closed,” Jenni Berringer told an Ada County dispatcher Friday night. “This is an accident waiting to happen. We’ve almost gotten hit three times.”

A day later, three airmen from Mountain Home Air Force Base and a 42-year-old long-haul trucker from Rochester, New York, were killed in a fiery crash. An eastbound semi loaded with apples struck an SUV and pushed it into another semi near the Cloverdale overpass in Boise at about 11:30 p.m. Four other vehicles were also struck.

The Idaho State Police are investigating the crash. It’s unclear whether the closure of two of the four lanes contributed to it, but clearly there were concerns among motorists.

ISP received two calls from concerned motorists Friday, both shortly before midnight. A trooper went and observed the area, ISP spokesman Tim Marsano said. The trooper was not alarmed by the placement of signs or with lighting in the area. However, he did notify the Idaho Transportation Department of the citizen concerns, Marsano said.

The Penhall Co., an Anaheim, California, contractor, is working to fill seams between slabs of concrete on a 3-mile stretch of I-84 between Five Mile Road and Orchard Street, starting a mile east of the crash site. The company is installing a rubbery waterproofing material that extends the life of the roadway. The $1.9 million project, which covered two construction seasons, is scheduled to be completed next month.

The work was planned to be done during late-night and early morning hours, with traffic affected from 10 p.m. Friday to 7 a.m. Saturday and 10 p.m. Saturday until 9 a.m. Sunday, according to a road-maintenance update on ITD’s website.

Traffic barrels were put up in eastbound lanes to narrow traffic from four lanes to three, and then to two, and then to one.

On Saturday night, Boise resident Anna Hunt said she drove through the stretch roughly an hour before the crash. She said traffic was so heavy that it took her 40 minutes to drive from Eagle Road to Curtis Road, a distance of about 6 miles.

“There were a few cars that came up fast in the merge lanes and tried to force their way in,” Hunt told the Idaho Statesman. Eastbound traffic west of Cloverdale was limited to one lane.

“It probably would have been safer had another lane been open, since only having one lane had traffic at a near standstill,” she said.

Most motorists, including those driving semis, were courteous, Hunt said. “But there are always a few bad drivers who make situations like that worse,” she said.

Josh Thompson, a Boise resident who helped people injured in the crash, said he drove through that stretch of freeway the night before, so he knew the lane mergers were in effect. Still, he didn’t think drivers were given adequate notice.

“There wasn’t that great warning that there were lane mergers up ahead,” Thompson said.

State highway departments, including the Idaho Transportation Department, are guided by the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices on how to protect highway workers and motorists during construction projects.

The manual directs highway departments to provide adequate warnings through signs, pavement markings and other devices. It also says controls should be modified, if needed, as work progresses.

“The specifics of the traffic plan used for this project are part of ISP’s investigation, and we are reviewing what is appropriate for us to release at this time,” ITD spokesman Jake Melder said in response to a Statesman request for the plan.

The federal manual provides basic guidelines, but project engineers have flexibility to arrange safety measures for a particular project, said Eric Shannon, district engineer for the Nampa Highway District.

“There are always additional features you can add, and a lot of those just have to do with the judgment of the engineer at the time that they’re laying it out,” said Shannon, who has 20 years of experience, including 13 years with ITD. He is not involved with this project. “It has to do with the cost. It has to do with the traffic volumes that you expect. It has to do with the duration.”

Hunt said the warning signs were inadequate.

“There wasn’t any warning that it was down to a single lane, and it was kind of confusing that it kept merging,” she said.

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @johnwsowell
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