Wegmans, Pennsylvania employees saw smoke from the I-81 pileup, then jumped in to help

Pottsville, Pennsylvania – It would have been easy for workers at a Wegmans distribution center in Pennsylvania to just get on with their day as an 80-car pileup unfolded nearby on Interstate 81.

But they didn’t.

About 25 employees from the grocery chain’s Pottsville warehouse ended up operating a makeshift triage site and shelter for more than 50 crash victims. They gave them food, blankets, bandages and ice packs.

They fed injured dogs and cats. Above all, they listened and offered survivors shoulders to cry on in a scary moment.

“They were still in shock,” said Mark Mikita, asset protection manager at the Wegmans Pottsville site. “There were so many people who were just grateful to be alive.”

The accident happened Monday morning when a snow squall hit the Pottsville area, about three hours south of Syracuse. The crash killed six people.

The highway was closed for nearly two days while authorities cleared the area.

Wegmans workers began hearing sirens soon after the accident, Mikita said. The 1 million square foot distribution center, which employs 900 people, is about two miles from the crash site.

Eventually, employees saw smoke billowing from the freeway as some of the vehicles involved caught fire.

Local officials initially simply asked Rochester-headquartered Wegmans to keep their own trucks on site and off the highway. About 15 minutes later, the company received a call asking if responders could send victims to the Wegmans Center.

The staff did not hesitate.

“It was definitely the right thing to do,” said Mikita, who serves on a local emergency planning committee in the Pottsville area. “Ultimately, we are committed to being good neighbors in the community.”

Wegmans workers greeted the crash victims as they were bused to the distribution center. Employees used a dining hall for the temporary shelter, Mikita said.

Buses carrying survivors of a pile-up on Interstate 81 near Pottsville, Pennsylvania arrive at a Wegmans distribution center near the crash site. Wegmans workers set up a triage center and temporary shelter for victims at the distribution center.Photo courtesy of Wegmans

A couple at the site were heading to New Hampshire after a stop at Camp Hill. They had only been on the road an hour when the squall hit and they got into the pileup.

Another family was traveling from Austin, Texas, to Maine with two dogs and a U-Haul, Mikita said.

The victims stayed in the warehouse for five or six hours. Eventually, local paramedics and members of the Red Cross arrived to help.

The survivors were then taken to a local fire department.

Two of Wegmans’ staff paramedics ended up assisting first responders at the crash scene, Mikita said. When they realized what was happening, they grabbed their bags of supplies and left.

They ended up pulling several people from wrecked vehicles.

“They described it as a puzzle,” Mikita said. “The cars were intertwined. They had to crawl under the tractor-trailers. They just went from car to car.

The employees just wanted to help.

“It’s something you can’t prepare for. We could never prepare,” Mikita said. “We worked as a team and tried to navigate a situation we didn’t expect.”

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Elizabeth J. Harless