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El Paso provides emergency shelter for nearly 60 people following the I-39 pileup

Cars backed up on Interstate 39 pileup
Brandon Rixstine
Illinois State Police indicated close to 100 vehicles were involved a "mass collision" on Interstate 39 southbound near El Paso on Thursday afternoon.

An army of city and county staff and volunteers assisted dozens of people who had become stranded on Interstate 39 near El Paso on Thursday during the winter storm.

El Paso's director of public service Barry Kauther said the city created makeshift shelters at the El Paso Public Library and the Woodford County Emergency Services offices to house close to 60 people.

Kauther said some people stayed in vacant rental properties and restaurants provided meals for the stranded motorists. He said city and county staff and volunteers also provided food and water. He said as of mid-afternoon Friday all but three of them were able to get back to their vehicles or get an alternate means of transportation.

“Everybody I spoke to said they’ve never seen anything like this happen in this area,” Kauther said, noting he moved to El Paso in 2020. “For what it was and the magnitude of the people who were involved I think the workers did an unbelievable job to get them to shelter, to get them to safety.”

Kauther said Illinois State Police spent the night getting vehicles towed while staff from the city and Woodford County emergency services drove people to their towed vehicles or got them to the Amtrak station in Normal for those whose vehicles were totaled. He said county staff also provided traffic control in El Paso as interstate traffic was rerouted into the city for nearly 24 hours after the crash.

“We had a lot of people reach out within the community that want to volunteer and volunteer food and volunteer whatever they could do to help,” Kauther said. “It was really nice to see the community come together and be able to help out these people who were displaced.”

El Paso mayor J.W. Price also commended those who took time to help the stranded motorists during the storm.

“As the Mayor of this City, I have never been more proud of our community as I was yesterday,” Price said in a Facebook post. “Many of our police officers, fire fighters, and rescue squad personnel responded and put themselves in harm’s way as chain reaction collisions were still happening. We were inundated with citizens of this community stepping up and offering to purchase food, home stranded motorists, provide drinks and other needed services. Multiple local businesses took people into their rental properties free of charge to provide a safe place to stay overnight and also provide meals to everyone effected."

Woodford County Sheriff Matthew Smith noted the Salvation Army and American Red Cross were among the organizations that responded to provide emergency relief.

“This daunting task would not have been possible without the tremendous teamwork from many, many agencies,” Smith said in a Facebook post.

Kauther also said the city can learn lessons from an experience like this so they could be better prepared if it were to happen again. “We had to reach out and get cots. Maybe that’s something as a town, we might want to look at purchasing a few ourselves so we don’t have to go out and get them,” Kauther said.

Police said there were no major injuries in the crash that initially involved close to 30 vehicles before it expanded to close to 100 vehicles.

I-39 was closed in both directions for nearly 24 hours before it reopened Friday afternoon.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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