On Sunday, July 30, my wife Deb and I missed by approximately five minutes being involved in a horrific traffic accident on Interstate 70 near the 40 East exit that killed two people and injured six. As such, we were in the first wave of travelers stuck in a mammoth traffic jam resulting from eastbound I-70's closure, which lasted just over seven hours. The incident took place at what may be the worst possible place in the Denver area, and at the worst possible time, when thousands of people were returning to the city from a summer weekend in the mountains.
We'd spent the weekend at my wife's family cabin on the Grand Mesa and enjoyed the glorious scenery, as well as Colorado Parks and Wildlife's annual Moose Day event, staged at the area's visitor center. (We've been traveling to the Grand Mesa for decades but have yet to see a moose, even though there are supposedly 400 or so in the immediate vicinity. Maybe that's just bad luck — or maybe it's a Capricorn One situation....) Rather than spend the lion's share of Sunday in nature, however, we headed out at approximately 7:40 a.m. in order to help our twin daughters move out of their current residence.
We made good time during the drive, and we were on schedule for a travel time of around three and a half hours from the Grand Mesa to our home, in the Ken-Caryl Ranch area of unincorporated Jefferson County, when we approached the final descent into the Denver area. I've always enjoyed the signage along this portion of highway. The first message warns about five miles of steep grades and curves, while those that follow provide updates, telling truckers not to be fooled after the first few miles, because there's still a mile and a half of challenging roadways ahead.
We saw that last sign at around 11:05 a.m., and it's no joke. The downhill grade causes cars and trucks to gather speed rapidly if drivers aren't careful, and plenty of them aren't. They rocket off the hill at tremendous speed, unless they're stopped by speed-trapping state patrol officers — and even those who are more cautious aren't exactly crawling along this stretch.
The jam leading up to the 40 East exit.
Photo by Deb Roberts
Then, suddenly, we saw brake lights ahead of us, and within seconds, the traffic in all lanes came to a complete standstill. Over the course of the next fifteen minutes or so, we inched forward at a pace slower than the average stroll while craning our necks in an effort to figure out what exactly was going on — and others were doing likewise. We knew something terrible had happened when a number of emergency vehicles wedged their way through the congestion, but the specifics remained a mystery.
At that point, we realized that we had been stopped just shy of the 40 East exit. The route goes behind the hogback to Morrison, feeding traffic through town before hooking up with C-470 — and we knew we could get home from there. So I managed to maneuver my way from the left hand lane to the right shoulder and move along the barricaded curve toward the exit, albeit ever so slowly.
That's because the vehicles in all the other lines were being pushed in the same direction — and plenty of them were impatient. One guy in a silver/gray pickup intimidated his way over by nearly hitting several cars; as you can see by the photo below, taken by my wife, he got within an inch or so of other rides.
This process continued over the next fifteen or twenty minutes, and as we negotiated our way around the curve, we could finally see officers, flashing lights and, in the distance, wreckage. Shortly thereafter, we made our way onto the ramp and onto 40 East, which moved quickly for a while, then bogged down in Morrison, for understandable reasons; the one traffic signal controlling the situation wasn't set for this kind of volume. But after about ten minutes, we managed to get through a green light and made our way to C-470, which, unsurprisingly, was wide open. We arrived home at shortly after noon.
The impatient truck driver.
Photo by Deb Roberts
As for what happened, details filtered in throughout the afternoon and into the early evening; the Colorado Department of Transportation reopened eastbound I-70 at 6:15 p.m. About an hour later, the Colorado State Patrol released preliminary information about the crash.
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At around 11 a.m., according to the CSP, a 2001 Chevrolet 2500 pickup driven by Jeff Stumpf, a 54-year-old Evergreen resident, was traveling westbound on I-70 when it veered across the grassy median into the eastbound lanes, striking a 2006 Toyota 4Runner occupied by Jodie Stewart, 52, and a seventeen-year-old male, as well as a 2017 Jeep Wrangler containing Golden's Mark and Karen Brown, a 2000 Wrangler Rubicon that held Golden's Todd and Gwen Davidson and a sixteen-year-old, and a Honda sedan with Denver's Sandra Maes and Thomas Antholz inside.
Both Stumpf and Stewart were killed, but the teenager with her survived. The Browns, the Davidsons and the teen in their company suffered injuries but are expected to recover, and Maes and Antholz were unhurt.
The cause of the accident is still under investigation at this writing, so we don't yet know what caused Stumpf to come across the highway at a point where cars were zooming into Denver. But my wife and I can't help reflecting about what might have happened had we left the cabin on the Grand Mesa five minutes earlier....