Cloquet woman survives fall off bridgeHannah Ellisa Tibbetts, 21, of Cloquet slid off the 14th Street overpass in her car, which flipped and landed upside down in the only spot where there was snow piled. Tibbetts underwent surgery for a fractured neck Friday at St. Luke’s hospital in Duluth and is in good condition, according to a family member.
By: Steve Kuchera, Pine Journal
Minnesota State Patrol Trooper Dave Vereecken wondered what had happened when he arrived at a one-vehicle accident Thursday morning on Interstate 35.
A Toyota Corolla faced the wrong direction on northbound I-35 near Cloquet, its roof flattened. But there were no skid marks and no sign of a rollover.
“I looked at the firemen and one pointed his finger up” to the 14th Street overpass, Vereecken said. “I’m like, ‘No way.’ Somebody ran up there and sure enough, there were skid marks going up onto the snow bank and over the edge.”
“The person that reported the accident, from what I heard, said that a vehicle basically fell out of the sky,” Vereecken said.
The car’s sole occupant, Hannah Ellisa Tibbetts, 21, of Cloquet underwent surgery for a fractured neck Friday at St. Luke’s hospital in Duluth, according to a family member. She was supposed to be released from the hospital Monday, said another family member.
“She should have been dead,” Vereecken said. “She’s lucky to have survived falling off a bridge. It had a happy ending.”
The accident happened about 11:30 a.m. Thursday as Tibbetts was heading north on 14th Street. She lost control of her 1991 Toyota Corolla and the car apparently went up the snow banked against the bridge before plunging to the interstate.
“It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. It probably went at least 40 feet horizontally through the air and dropped 40 feet straight down,” said Vereecken, a 10-year State Patrol veteran.
The car landed where northbound I-35 and Minnesota Highway 33 merge.
“There’s a pie-shaped piece where the snow is about two-and-a-half feet deep, her car landed right on that spot,” Vereecken said, noting that prior to flipping off the overpass, the car skidded along the concrete barrier like a skateboard riding a rail. “That’s what saved her.”
The snow cushion pushed the car back up and it landed on all four wheels in the right lane of northbound I-35.
Luckily for Tibbetts, Cloquet Area Fire District firefighters and paramedics had been working another rollover just north of the 14th Street overpass, so they got to the scene within minutes.
The impact had flattened the car’s roof to where the roof was touching the top of the seats. Tibbetts, who was wearing an automatic shoulder belt but not the lap belt, was lying sideways in the car, trapped, in shock and upset. Firefighters used the Jaws of Life to cut and peel back the roof to reach her. They placed her on a backboard and braced her neck before she was transported to the Cloquet hospital.
“We expected possibly a fatality,” Vereecken said.
Instead, the State Patrol sergeant who followed up at the hospital found Tibbetts sitting up, talking and with feeling in all her extremities.
Tibbetts’ brother-in-law Bryce Pfisthner was thankful Tibbetts survived.
“It was a pretty nasty crash,” Pfisthner said.
Pfisthner appreciates the quick response by emergency workers, but he is disappointed that road crews hadn’t cleared the snow from along the overpass’s railing.
“If they had cleaned up on the bridge she would have just hit the barrier instead of going over,” he said. “She would probably be a lot better now.”
Carlton County, which is responsible for the 14th Street bridge, removes snow from along bridge railings as time allows, Carlton County Engineer Wayne Olson said.
“The bridge is something we normally clean up between snowstorms,” he said. “But with hauling salt and cleaning up city parking lanes and a few of those types of things we haven’t had much time between snowstorms.”
Although the county cleared the bridge Friday, by midweek the snow was banked up again after more snow fell over the weekend.
Snow banked against a bridge railing may have contributed to a 1996 accident in Duluth where two women died after their Jeep plunged from a highway overpass near 21st Avenue West and fell 50 feet.
The State Patrol determined that the driver in that accident had a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit and was traveling 59 mph when she lost control. The posted or recommended speed for the overpass is 35 mph.
Alcohol was not a factor in Thursday’s accident, State Patrol Sgt. Mark Baker said.
“She told the trooper out there that she was going too fast,” he said.
Jana Peterson and Wendy Johnson of the Pine Journal contributed to this story.