CHEROKEE CO., S.C. (WSPA) – The coroner is speaking out after three people died in an eight-car pile-up on I-85 in Cherokee County on Thursday.
“We are the first county on I-85 as you come into South Carolina,” Cherokee County Coroner Dennis Fowler said. “What kind of welcome mat do we have?”
Three people, who were passing through Cherokee County by way of I-85, were killed in a construction zone–more specifically, in what the South Carolina Department of Transportation calls “the chute.”
Sadly, this is not the first time something like this has happened.
“Do we put a sign out there that says, ‘Welcome to South Carolina?’ Do we put a sign at the bottom that says, ‘Enter at your own risk?’ I don’t think so,” Fowler said.
Coroner Dennis Fowler said, so far, there have been six fatalities on I-85 in Cherokee County since the chute was implemented as part of the I-85 widening project. All of those deaths, he said, probably could’ve been prevented.
“I realize that there’s a need for the construction. There’s an absolute need for a third lane in the north and southbound lanes; but how many deaths do we have to have before we sacrifice the construction for those deaths?”
Fowler said the chute, which was recently extended, is not safe but, instead, a hazardous mess; and he wants to see some change.
“I think it’s a death trap, an absolute death trap of a concrete maze,” he said. “I am not a traffic engineer, but I don’t think you have to be a traffic engineer to figure out this does not work.”
Fowler said he’s had enough of being the bearer of bad news when it comes to this particular stretch of highway.
“I’ve never had a DOT person volunteer or go with me to make a ‘door-knock.’ That’s when you go the door and deliver the unfortunate news that a person has lost a loved one,” Fowler added.
The South Carolina Department of Transportation announced that the speed limit on I-85 southbound will be lowered to 45 mph and revised signs will be placed in the work zone.
“Trying to clear up any confusion from the trucker perspective of which lane they’re supposed to be in and where they’re supposed to be traveling,” Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall said.
SCDOT told 7News they’ll be in town implementing these changes next week.
“If we have to work this weekend, that’s what we’ll do,” Hall said. “We’ll continue our discussion on what else can be done. All options are on the table. I haven’t ruled any options out–including re-evaluating the use of the chute.”
In the meantime, there is a petition circulating on social media, asking for immediate change to the construction project.
“If we don’t stand up and say, ‘This has to stop,’ nothing will be done. Squeaky wheel gets the grease. I’m the squeaky wheel,” Fowler said.
Dennis Fowler said he plans to reach out to Governor McMaster’s office, as well as Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Tim Scott, for help.
It’s unclear at this time if there will be any charges related to this crash. South Carolina Highway Patrol is still investigating.
According to the Cherokee County 911 Communications Center, there were 200 reported crashes with injuries on I-85 in Cherokee County in 2020. That’s compared to 136 in 2019.
So far this year, there have already been 119 reported crashes with injuries on I-85 in Cherokee County.
Cherokee County Administrator Steve Bratton released the following statement:
“On July 15, 2021 another accident occurred on Interstate 85 in Cherokee County, and sadly three people
lost their life as a result. This accident was the latest in an almost daily occurrence (119 accidents with
injuries so far this year) that has happened as a result of the now three year long widening project. The
creation of a chute for several miles in an already dangerous construction zone seems to have
exacerbated the problems, and now that chute has been expanded even farther. While we cannot say
for certain that the design of the construction area is to blame for all the accidents, it cannot be
coincidence that so many of them occur within the chute. In addition to the obvious affect these
accidents have on those involved, there are hours long standstills, breakdowns, and massive amounts of
detoured traffic through residential areas not designed for the increased traffic flow. These accidents
often are multi‐vehicle, multiple injury accidents that stretch thin our emergency responders and cause
our 911 center to be inundated with calls.
Many meetings have been held by the South Carolina Department of Transportation and Blythe‐Zachary
to address safety concerns, but nothing seems to have improved the situation. Representatives from
Law Enforcement, EMS, Fire Departments, 911 Communications, and other involved parties have
expressed their concerns over and over to no avail.
The number of accidents and the death toll in this obviously dangerous work zone continues to climb
(currently four in the chute, and two in the north bound lane) yet the design has not changed, and the
chute has even been extended. Today, in the interest of the safety of our citizens and visitors, Cherokee
County Officials are requesting that the SC DOT hire an independent consultant to review the widening
project on Interstate 85 to assess the effectiveness of the safety measures that are being utilized.
Additionally, we suggest the following:
Reducing the speed limit to 45 mph throughout the entire construction zone
Law enforcement pacing traffic through the chute
All tractor trailer traffic in the right lane
Increased funding for more of a law enforcement presence
Better signage with more clear terminology
Enforcement of the speed limit leading up to and in the chute
Deploy the State Transportation Police to assist with enforcement regarding tractor trailers
We will be expressing our concerns and requests in writing to our Federal Congressional Delegation, the
Cherokee County Legislative Delegation, the SC Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway
Administration, and Blythe‐Zachary Construction on behalf of the citizens of Cherokee County.“