WILSON, Wis. (FOX 9) - It was a frightening, fiery crash on Interstate 94 in western Wisconsin that left two dead and half a dozen people injured.
With flames raging on the freeway between Baldwin and Menomonie, the aftermath was captured on highway traffic camera footage. For the first time, we are hearing from one of those caught up in the chain-reaction, multiple-vehicle crash that occurred during the evening rush on Monday, Oct. 23.
The young woman, who is grateful to be alive, documented her terrifying experience with her camera as emergency responders attempted to put out the fire and save lives.
"All I see in the mirror is a huge explosion," recalled Shantel Whitish. "That's when the anxiety started kicking in for me because I realized, Oh, my god, there is a fire on the highway."
Whitish told FOX 9’s Paul Blume she felt absolutely helpless until realizing as a critical witness, she could document the scene. So, the 19-year-old pulled out her camera, she says, her mission was to capture the fearlessness and heroism of first responders.
"I thought it was pretty cool to see all of these people come help someone they did not even know," said Whitish. "Crazy that all of these people have that instinct."
Whitish and her boyfriend were heading home to the metro from a day trip to Eau Claire, their black BMW just one vehicle ahead of what would become the deadly chain reaction crash at the state Highway 128 overpass west of Menomonie. Whitish told Blume, she remembered burying her head in the front passenger seat and bracing for impact.
"In case any debris would come through the glass or anything like that, I felt it was safest to duck," she explained. "I like to say we were easily six to 10 feet away from the explosion."
Authorities have said the horrific crash was caused when a 76-year-old semi driver from Illinois, traveling at highway speed failed to slow for traffic that had backed up at a construction-related lane closure. He was killed, as was the driver of a Ford F-150 he plowed into. Some half a dozen cars and trucks were ultimately caught up in the carnage.
Whitish, an avid photographer, snapped a batch of pictures and recorded some videos along the freeway, in awe of the emergency efforts.
In the moment, she had no idea anyone had died. The smoke was so thick and the wreckage so mangled, Whitish did not realize there were additional vehicles behind the burning semi-trailer right in front of her.
After several hours at the scene, the couple ultimately ended up driving two people who survived the crash in a heavily damaged pickup to MSP Airport to catch a flight they were scheduled to take. They were strangers before, but are now bonded by their shared freeway nightmare. Whitish is still shaken by the tragic loss of life.
"Those are people that can't go home. You know, you are never guaranteed the next day," Whitish said.