Two sisters are among the victims of a fatal multi-vehicle accident involving a semi-truck in Hamel, Illinois. The crash, which occurred two days before Thanksgiving, is a stark reminder of the dangerous truck crashes that can accompany the holiday season and its increased highway travel.

Hamel Truck Accident Described As “Worst” Many Illinois Troopers Had Seen

The community of Staunton is in mourning in the wake of a deadly crash that took the lives of three of its bright young residents.

The crash occurred at approximately 6:15 p.m. on the evening of Tuesday, November 21, 2017, in Madison County, just south of the city of Hamel and northeast of Edwardsville. Roads were full, under what Illinois State Police (ISP) say are the busiest traffic hours of the year. Traffic in the area was moving at the time, though some reports indicate that it had slowed slightly to factor for a nearby construction area.

Fifty-three-year-old Mohamed Yussuf Jama, a Greeley, Colorado, resident, was operating a semi-truck in the southbound lanes on Interstate 55. Officials believe he slammed into seven vehicles also traveling southbound in front of him at an estimated speed of 60 miles per hour. The impact of the collisions was enough that state troopers say that the big rig ran over some of the vehicles involved.

Trooper Calvin Dye was one of the personnel who responded to the scene, and he recounted the extensive damage to the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

“This was probably the worst crash a lot of us on the scene have ever been on,” Dye said. “The number of cars. Everywhere you turned and looked, there was another smashed-in, totaled vehicle.”

“Everybody looks forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas and you don’t want, every time these holidays roll around, to think about that tragedy,” Dye added. “That’s what we are out there trying to prevent. These events are just unfortunate.”

Among the wreckage was a Kia Forte driven by 17-year-old Madisen N. Bertels, one of the Staunton women killed in the crash. Her sister, 20-year-old Hailey Joann Bertels was riding in the backseat. Both sisters were wearing seatbelts at the time of the accident, and both were pronounced dead at the scene.

Victims of I-55 Truck Crash Remembered as Great Students

The Bertels sisters both attended Staunton High School, with Madisen currently in her senior year and Hailey having graduated in 2015. Brett Allen, the school’s principal, described them as being equally engaged.

“Both were model students, bright, positive young ladies,” Allen said. “They were loved by all the staff and their fellow classmates and peers.”

Counselors were brought in to speak with students about the tragedy, and a vigil was held for the sisters at Saint Paul United Church of Christ in Staunton on November 30, 2017, to honor them.

“It’s very difficult to understand why it’s happened,” Reverend Debbie Jo Atkins said at the church. “There are no answers as to why it happened, don’t think God decided ‘I’m going to take these young people from our midst’.”

Missouri Southern Victim Was Returning from Model UN

The third victim of the 1-55 truck crash was 19-year-old Vivian Vu, a Missouri Southern State University sophomore. Vu was traveling by van with five other students from the university and a professor when the accident occurred. The group was headed back to Joplin, Missouri, home of the school, from a Model UN conference they attended in Chicago.

An initial news report from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted a Missouri Southern State University spokesman named Cassie Mathes as saying that none of the students had suffered life-threatening injuries. Mathes did mention that one student—now believed to be Vu—underwent surgery through the night while remaining in serious condition. Vu died on Thanksgiving Day.

An article on Vu’s passing was posted to the school’s publication, The MOSO Minute. In it, the University spoke of Vu’s skill as a student, including how she had graduated magna cum laude from Joplin High School and was a member of the University’s Honors Program.

The director of the Honors Program, Dr. Michael Howarth, spoke fondly of Vu in the piece.

“Vivian was always smiling, always eager to have a conversation if she met you anywhere on campus,” Howarth said. “She was the kind of person you would talk with for five minutes and then want to spend another hour continuing the conversation.”

“She was full of big dreams and infinite possibilities,” he added. “She was emblematic of the qualities that define an Honors student. Her many friends in the Missouri Southern State community will greatly miss her.”

Vu planned to major in international studies and was going to attend spring semester at a university in Thailand.

Final Victim of the Illinois Truck Accident Donated Organs

Twenty-year-old Tori Carroll was also riding in the Kia Forte with the Bertels sisters, who were two of her close friends. Caroll, however, survived the crash. She was taken by air to a nearby Missouri hospital, where she remained in critical condition for nine days.

Carroll was pronounced dead at the hospital on November 30, but in a final act of generosity and kindness, her organs were donated. It was a fittingly loving final act for Carroll, but an abrupt and unexpected end to a bright future. Carroll had taken dual credits so she could graduate early from Murray State and had already begun law school in Kentucky.

Authorities Uncertain Why Semi Slammed into Traffic

Jama, the driver of the semi-truck, was one of the 12 people initially reported injured in the I-55 truck crash, and investigators are working to find out why the fatal truck crash occurred. State troopers were stationed outside Jama’s hospital room—and those of surviving victims—waiting to conduct interviews in an attempt to gain more information on the moments leading up to the crash.

Witnesses who saw the Hamel truck crash occur say that Jama hit the other vehicles at highway speeds, without attempting to slow his vehicle. Incidents where semi-trucks collide with slowed or stationary traffic are common on America’s highways and have served as part of the motivation for safety advocates to call for electronic logging devices and stricter sleep apnea testing to reduce fatigue on roadways.

No citations were issued against Jama as of November 28, but the investigation into the crash is ongoing.