Rescuers battle bees at deadly I-35 pileup

  • Article by: KATIE HUMPHREY and PAUL WALSH , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: May 25, 2010 - 8:18 AM

One truck carried millions of bees, and firefighters fought them with hoses to reach the victims. The State Patrol has identified both car drivers killed in the crash.

Two cars had been crushed, one person was dead, another was fatally injured, and if that wasn't enough, emergency crews had to make it through a cloud of bees to reach the victims.

Two semitrailer trucks -- one carrying millions of bees -- and two cars collided on Interstate 35 in Lakeville late Monday morning, a crash that closed the northbound lanes along a 5-mile stretch of the interstate between County Road 2 and County Road 70 for several hours.

All through the sweltering afternoon, after the badly injured driver was airlifted to a hospital, emergency personnel used fire hoses to battle thousands of bees that escaped from the beehives and swarmed the area.

"I saw this big black cloud," said Lakeville Fire Chief Scott Nelson, one of the first people on the scene. "I opened up my door and got stung in the face by a couple of bees."

He told other firefighters to come in full gear, face masks on, for protection. "We're all taking a sting here or a sting there," Nelson said as he stood near the scene.

Lt. Eric Roeske of the Minnesota State Patrol said investigators are uncertain what caused the crash, which left two cars, a Chevrolet Lumina and a Pontiac Bonneville, crumpled between the two trucks.

The driver of the Bonneville, Kari Rasmussen, 24, of St. Anthony, was airlifted to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, where she died. The Lumina's driver, who died at the scene, was identified Tuesday morning as Pamela Brinkhaus, 50, of Elko.

The patrol identified the truck drivers as Jason Styrbicky, 36, of Buffalo, Minn., and Darren Straus, 37, of Fertile, Minn.

The truck carrying bees looked like it had been struck from behind, but Roeske said it was too early to know exactly how the crash happened. Late Monday, the patrol said that the bee truck and the two cars had stopped in the northbound lanes because of construction ahead when the Bonneville was struck from behind by the second truck, setting off a chain reaction in which the Lumina then struck the bee truck.

Dale Bauer of Bauer Honey Inc. in Fertile, Minn., which owns the bees, said they were being shipped to North Dakota after spending the winter in Mississippi. He said that when the Lumina hit the bee truck from behind, some of the hives on the flatbed truck fell to the ground.

Another truck carrying bees that wasn't involved in the collision pulled over to the side of the highway.

On Bauer's advice, firefighters began dousing both trucks with water to keep the bees from flying. "It'll kill a lot of them," Bauer said. "That's all right. You've got to do that in a situation like that."

Each truck carried upwards of 17 million bees -- 700 hives apiece, with about 25,000 bees per hive, Bauer said. It was unclear how many bees escaped, but the majority of the crates stayed on the truck.

Another honey producer in Winthrop, Minn., agreed to send help, and by 5 p.m., the hives were being moved to another truck to be shipped off.

The interstate reopened shortly after 7 Monday night.

In addition to occasional stings -- with an ambulance standing by in case anyone had an allergic reaction -- Monday's heat made the rescue difficult for first responders. Nelson said one Lakeville firefighter was taken back to the station suffering from heat exhaustion.

As southbound traffic crawled by the scene, officers urged drivers to roll up their windows.

Alex Holzinger, riding his motorcycle from Northfield home to Minneapolis, said he got to the scene just minutes after the crash and rode between the lanes of traffic to get close to the scene. Holzinger said about 10 "hives were everywhere on the road, and the bees were just swarming."

"The air was thick with bees," he said. "I had my visor down, and I was lucky no bees got in my helmet."

Two men wearing helmets with facial screens worked to contain the bees. Holzinger, wearing shorts and with his leather jacket open on the hot day, said one told him, "You better get out of here."

Bees are commonly moved around the continent seasonally and are used to pollinate fields and orchards, and accidents happen occasionally. In July 2008, a truck carrying 12 million bees overturned in Canada. In 2004, a truck carrying 12 million bees crashed into a freeway wall in Las Vegas, spilling hives onto the road.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482 Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056

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