ST. GEORGE – Traffic backed up for several miles in both directions on Interstate 15 through the Virgin River Gorge Sunday afternoon after an accident involving two semitrailers and a passenger car resulted in a fire and two further collisions.
The first crash occurred at approximately 3:25 p.m. MST, Arizona Highway Patrol Sgt. John Bottoms said, near Arizona’s mile post 13 in a construction area located in the middle of Bridge 3 of I-15 of the Virgin River Gorge.
Brandon Scott Grem, 24, from Spanish Fork, was traveling with passenger Kendyl Wyatt, 21, from Corona, Calif., in a black passenger car that he had just bought two days earlier, Bottoms said.
As Grem was driving northbound through the Gorge between two semitrailers, he slowed to a near stop to avoid rear-ending a semitrailer driven by Lusio Yamez, of San Bernardino, Calif.
A second semi did not slow down, and was traveling too close to other vehicles on the road to make a safe stop, so the driver, Kevin Swenson from Belgrade, Minn., tried to avoid hitting Grem’s car by pulling up the left side of him. Swenson ended up hitting Grem’s car and wedging it in between his truck and the concrete barrier, while rear-ending Yamez’s semi.
“The 18-wheeler had smashed them up against a concrete barrier wall of the bridge and a trailer so they couldn’t open their doors,” Bottoms said, “and the 18-wheeler that hit them started on fire so there was a lot of smoke billowing into the interior of their car.”
A passing motorist broke out the back window to pull both Grem and Wyatt out of the car, and then broke out the front window to turn the car off because the engine was running and revving really high. Both escaped serious injury, Bottoms said, ending up with only minor cuts and scrapes from flying glass.
“The one commercial vehicle (Yamez’s semi) that was rear-ended was able to pull forward and pull off the bridge; but the commercial vehicle that was at fault (Swenson’s semi) and the passenger car were stuck together,” Bottoms said, “and we had to wait for a tow truck to come out of St. George to pull them apart and then drive them off of the bridge. The compression on the vehicle kind of just squeezed it and crushed it like an accordion.”
Swenson was cited for failure to control the speed of his vehicle to avoid a collision, Bottoms said, and no other citations were issued.
The road was completely closed from 3:30-5:30 p.m. MST backing up traffic to about mile post 6 in Arizona, equating to about 7 miles of backup. All of the traffic was routed off on Old Highway 91 during that period of time.
As a result of the collision and traffic backing up, two other collisions occurred. Both were noninjury collisions with only minor damage to those vehicles but did lead to one arrest.
“One driver ended up arrested because he was extremely intoxicated and we’re really fortunate that he didn’t rear-end somebody at a much higher speed,” Bottoms said. “We actually witnessed that collision and it was just amazing that nobody was seriously injured with the way this other driver was driving.”
After the road was opened at 4:30 p.m., the residual backup traffic took another two hours to clear out until the road was completely free and moving again at approximately 7:15 p.m. MST.
Arizona Department of Transportation began road construction in January on a $2.8 million project to upgrade the southbound bridge surfaces, repair girders and perform other work on Virgin River Bridges through the 29-mile stretch of I-15 through the Virgin River Gorge. Bottoms said AHP has only seen a couple of collisions since construction started and most of it is because drivers haven’t merged properly, then cut someone off resulting in a collision.
“Nothing quite like this where traffic is already moving at 35 mph – which is a really relatively low speed for the freeway and it’s the appropriate speed for this construction zone – so we really don’t know what Mr. Swenson was thinking or doing prior to hitting Mr. Grem’s vehicle,” Bottoms said. “He was obviously traveling way too close to the vehicle in front of him to make a safe and controlled stop.”
This report is based on preliminary information provided by the authorities and may not contain the full scope of findings.
- Road Advisory: Crash closes northbound I-15 through the Gorge, take alternate route
- Heavy traffic expected on I-15 through Virgin River Gorge; alternate route
- News short: Update on Gorge road work, traffic delays
- ADOT: Virgin River Gorge bridge improvement schedule
- Gorge closure; people stranded overnight recount experiences
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