The sky was still dark when Jose Gonzalez drove his black Chevy Silverado toward his job at Deep Rock Water in Five Points. As he headed from his home in Lakewood down 6th Ave., he saw cars turned sideways on the highway.
At first, he was confused, wondering why so many vehicles were pulled over. Then, as he lost control of his truck and crashed, he realized why. There was a pile-up on the icy road before him that he was now a part of.
Another vehicle hit his truck from the side.
“I got T-boned super hard,” he said. “If I was in a [smaller] car, I would have probably been dead.”
Once cars around him stopped slamming into each other, he tried to open his door but couldn’t. So he climbed out of the window and over a couple of cars.
Adrenaline flooded through his body. As he stepped on the ground, he realized his leg could not support his weight. He would learn later at the hospital that his ankle was sprained.
The scene on the three-lane stretch of 6th Ave. around him could’ve been taken from a post-apocalyptic disaster movie. Sedans were turned the wrong way; pickup trucks almost pinned to the concrete border; SUVs strewn about.
In all, about 100 cars were part of the massive wreck that shut down traffic from N. Federal Blvd. to Kalamath St. for several hours. The wreck came on the heels of Denver’s first recorded snowfall, and while the cause of the crash has yet to be determined, the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure said the road was not treated with deicer overnight.
Throughout the morning, tow trucks backed in and out of the collision site on 6th Ave. clearing cars. Street sweeping trucks and city staff had begun cleaning the smashed lights, glass, parts of seats, crushed license plates and bits of metal littering the highway.
One Ford Escape, crushed against another car in front and completely smashed in the back, still had its left tail light blinking as other cars were cleared.
“It looked like just piles and piles of cars on the highway,” said Bradley Pearlman, one of several tow truck drivers who were called to the scene. He arrived around 6:30 a.m.
Another tow truck driver, Lee Duvall, arrived hours before when the pileup was just beginning.
“Nobody knew what was going on,” he said. “We came out here, it went from 10 cars to 20 cars to 100 cars plus.”
Duvall said the road was slippery when he arrived. “It was a sheet of ice. When I jumped out of my truck, I almost broke my neck,” he said.
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Though police have not said exactly what caused the accident, several motorists, tow truck drivers and onlookers said the road was icy after the city’s first recorded snowfall of the season.
Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure said in a statement that it monitored conditions on 6th Ave. after Thursday night’s snowfall. Crews determined at 4:30 a.m. that treating the roads with deicer would not have been effective. Denver Police said it first received a call about the massive crash at 5:40 a.m.
“In Colorado, road conditions can change quickly, which is what happened along 6th Ave creating slick conditions before we had a chance to return to the area,” DOTI said in a statement.
The Fire Department evaluated 83 people on the scene, and transported 13 to the hospital. According to officials, only one person sustained serious injuries. The Fire Department also had to extricate six people trapped in their cars.
Toshia Reyes also drove across 6th Ave early in the morning, but fared better than most of the drivers that followed her.
She made it to her shift at LaMar’s Donuts and Coffee not long before the crash, and considers herself lucky.
“I hit black ice right about the overpass, and then I laid off my gas, got over three lanes so I wouldn’t go into the side rail, got control of my car and started braking,” she said.
Reyes drives over the bridge to work regularly, and said ice on it is not uncommon during colder seasons. “It didn’t surprise me what happened,” she said.
LaMar’s faces the 6th Ave. exit, so Reyes served people trickling in from the scene throughout the morning. At one point, police came in to brief paramedics who had gathered there. One driver who walked in off the highway was starting his birthday in an undesirable fashion.
“I said ‘what do you get for your birthday?’” she recalled. “He said, ‘a new car.’”
A parking lot at Empower Field turned into a de facto wreck yard as tow truck drivers were directed to take totaled and damaged cars there.
Early risers who crashed their cars while heading to work before dawn walked around their cars, inspecting damage. Family members of crash victims snapped photos of the cars. Other people took out whatever boxes, coats and bags they needed to bring home with them.
A woman named Sharon, who declined to share her last name as she was shaken up from the accident, woke up early to enjoy her normal Friday routine — sometime before 6 a.m.
She recalled how, as she drove to her job in the oil and gas industry, she crested the hill on 6th Avenue and saw “a wall of cars in front of me.” She hit the brakes but still slid into some vehicles.
“I sat there hanging onto the steering wheel as other cars kept slamming into me, just bam, bam bam,” she said. She guesses it was just a minute and a half that she sat there, but it felt like an eternity. “I kept thinking, ‘Are any of these cars going to blow?’”
When the “bam, bam, bam” faded further into the distance, she was able to get out of the car and stood with other people, she said. “I just watched and heard the ‘bam, bam, bam” and smoke as far as you could see.”
She was at Empower Field to take photos of her SUV and to report the crash to the insurance company.
Nearby, police, other families and media milled about, as humming tow trucks weaved between them.
As tow truck driver Zay Meha looked around the parking lot, he wondered what had happened to the people in the demolished vehicles.
“That’s a pretty bad accident if your wheel fell off on an SUV,” he said. “That’s scary. No airbags came out, so hopefully they weren’t injured. That’s pretty, pretty sad. I don’t like to see people get hurt, you know?”
This was the first time Meha has experienced the effects of such a large pile-up.
“I mean, there’s a football stadium, and it’s being used like a scrap yard for now,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
Reedah Aritz has been driving a tow truck for about a year.
“When I heard about a 100-car car pile up, I couldn’t take it seriously,” he said. “I thought it was an exaggeration.”
But looking at the cars at the Empower Field lot, he realized it was all too real.
“It can be quite traumatizing,” he said, looking at some of the vehicles that had arrived and imagining the people who had been in them. “We have that car that’s smashed all the way. I mean, who knows what went through their mind when they were just smashed in.” He pointed to another car. “Who knows what went through their mind when their car was just completely disintegrated?”
Given the number of cars involved, the insurance claims will get complicated.
Skyler McKinley, Regional Director of Public Affairs for AAA, said that with such a big crash, figuring out who is at fault and litigating between many different insurance companies will likely take a while. Plus, he said insurance companies are already backed up with claims from the Marshall Fire and with car thefts on the rise.
This means some might have to pay out of pocket up front for repairs, rental cars and new vehicles. Colorado is an at-fault state, so insurance companies can tell their customers to file with the insurance company of the person at fault. But figuring out who those people are given how chaotic Friday morning’s crash was -and pursuing litigation if any are uninsured — will be messy.
“For folks carrying only the bare minimum [insurance] in Colorado, this is an economic catastrophe,” McKinley said.
His advice for people involved in the crash is to document everything, call right away and file as fast as possible.
Gonzalez of the Silverado fortunately does have coverage. He walked around the yard, now on crutches, to inspect the damage on his truck.
Meha the tow truck driver offered him encouragement and to tow his truck to his home.
“I want to get the process going because this kind of ruined my day,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez will be able to replace his truck and he has another car to get around town and to work. But he’ll need a few days off from his job at Deep Rock, so he’ll be a bit short on money he needs to get by.
But he’s looking at the biggest positive of the day.
“At least I walked away with my life,” he said.
CPR News reporter Nathaniel Minor contributed reporting to this story.