A driver near Forest Lake hit a deer and abandoned her disabled pickup truck in the middle of a busy freeway where a semitrailer truck struck the pickup from behind, setting off a fiery chain-reaction crash.
The wreck and its immediate aftermath occurred about 8 a.m. Wednesday on northbound Interstate 35 at County Road 2.
Despite onlookers who were on foot nearby and other vehicles rolling past at the moment the big rig rammed the pickup, there were no reported injuries, Patrol Lt. Gordon Shank said Wednesday night.
Shank acknowledged that "each individual situation is going to determine the best course of action" after a vehicle becomes immobile in traffic.
But generally, he continued, "We do recommend that the involved party call 911 immediately and stay buckled up in the vehicle. We do not recommend people move around outside of their vehicle, as traffic is moving around the disabled vehicle at freeway speeds."
Shank declined to address why the semi driver hit the pickup after so many other vehicles avoided a collision, but added, "This is why we recommend that drivers practice good driving behaviors, such as putting distractions away and driving the speed limit. There can be vehicles, animals or debris in the roadway that can cause a traffic hazard."
Shank identified the pickup driver as Susan M. Norberg, 42, of Ramsey, and the trucker as David A. Haag, 59, of Center City, Minn.
"I could hear the cars whooshing past us," Norberg told the Star Tribune about 17 hours after running for her life to reach the freeway's shoulder. "I'm thinking, 'We're going to get hit here.' I just wanted to get out of the truck because I was terrified."
Norberg said she and her 12-year-old stepdaughter overcame several obstacles before finding safety behind the guardrail. To start with, she said, the impact with the deer filled the pickup's front passenger compartment with airbags from the front and side, making it difficult for her to get her door open and hampering visibility.
"All you see is white smoke" from a chemical released when the airbags expand, she said.
In the meantime, her stepdaughter was screaming that she couldn't get her seat belt unbuckled. Norberg freed her passenger, then squeezed under the driver's side air bag and shouldered open her stubborn door to get out.
Norberg ran toward the shoulder of the freeway only to realize about three-fourths of the way to safety that her stepdaughter stood frozen next to the open passenger door.
Norberg said she went back to the pickup, and they scrambled to safety together.
Minutes later, Haag's semi hit the pickup and sent it spinning in a ball of smoky fire.
"I really do feel like it was some sort of freak accident," Norberg said. "I'm not angry at him. I'm just thankful to Jesus that we are safe. 'What ifs' run through your mind. It's terrifying."
Alex Smith, whose three-person crew monitors traffic cameras in the Twin Cities area and posts some of what he sees on social media, captured video from the moments leading up to the crash until State Patrol troopers secured the scene.
Smith, whose year-old startup MN Safety pays its bills by selling video to Twin Cities television stations, narrated the incident over the three minutes and 37 seconds of imagery he compiled and called "this wild crash."
Smith gave props to the pickup driver and her passenger for being smart enough to stand behind an exit-ramp guardrail, especially given what was about to happen.
For eight to 10 minutes, there were close calls as vehicles veered around the pickup, but in the video Smith also praises those motorists who "used the generous shoulder to make space for each other. Unfortunately, it won't stay that way for long. There is a semi truck that just won't stop."
After impact, Smith continued his narrative and praised one of several bystanders.
"My absolute favorite part of this is the bystander who stopped being a bystander and absolutely booked it to her car and successfully pulled it away from the inferno without panicking [and] safely moved it back without hitting the car behind her," he said. "This is someone who quickly evaluated the situation, went all out and helped prevent further damage."
Alex Smith said Thursday morning he was "full of relief and a bit surprised" that no one was hurt.
"This was one of those videos: It's like it's wild," said the 38-year-old Smith, whose full-time gig is tending to spreadsheets for Microsoft. "It's going to be one of the most interesting videos of the year."