Crash closes I-10 for 15 hours along basin bridge

A fiery fatal crash Friday night forced authorities to close Interstate 10 in both directions between Baton Rouge and Lafayette for about 15 hours, diverting travelers north to U.S. 190 and flooding businesses along the highway with weary customers.

The wreck responsible for the traffic snafu happened shortly after 5 p.m. Friday on the nearly 20-mile-long Atchafalaya Basin Bridge when the driver of an 18-wheeler, Ricky Chester, 56, failed to stop and rear-ended another 18-wheeler, State Police said.

Several 18-wheelers involved in the crash caught fire, and Chester, along with his wife, Karen, both of Ohio, died at the scene, said Master Trooper Greg Marchand, a State Police spokesman.

The crash happened in an eastbound lane on a portion of the bridge situated over land. So when the trailer of one 18-wheeler plunged off the bridge, it struck land rather than the murky Atchafalaya swamp, Marchand said.

Troopers and other authorities closed I-10 in both directions shortly after the crash until about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, when the westbound lanes were opened, as crews worked to clear debris from the roadway. The westbound lanes remained closed for 15 hours because cranes were brought in and operating in those lanes to remove large pieces of crash debris from on and below the bridge, Marchand said.

Once the roadway was cleared and the bridge was deemed safe for travel, troopers opened the eastbound lanes about 3 p.m. Saturday, Marchand said.

Meantime, businesses along the stretch of U.S. 190 between Baton Rouge and Opelousas experienced a sales boom as troopers and other local authorities diverted thousands upon thousands of eastbound travelers from I-10 to I-49 and westbound travelers from I-10 to La. 415.

“It was crazy,” said Denise Kimball, owner of the Krotz Springs Canal gas station, restaurant and convenience store just west of the Atchafalaya River.

The situation was reminiscent of hurricane evacuation traffic, Kimball said, as many aggravated customers arrived from all over the country.

“One guy said it took him two hours to get from Port Barre to Krotz Springs,” Kimball said, which is a drive that usually doesn’t take longer than 20 minutes.

Just down the road in the tiny St. Landry Parish town sits Billy’s Mini Mart, a gas station and convenience store that ran out of just about everything in stock, except for gas, due to the increased traffic flow.

“We’ve been swamped,” Jessica Launey, a clerk at the store, said Saturday afternoon.

Launey said sales over the weekend were already several thousand dollars higher than usual as of Saturday afternoon, as customers had cleared the shelves of stock of boudin balls and cracklins while also emptying the drink coolers.

“I know the traffic has been horrible on (U.S.) 190,” said Capt. Steve Juge, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office in Pointe Coupee Parish, where a stretch of U.S. 190 runs through.

Juge said Livonia had some problems because of two traffic lights that are close to each other on U.S. 190. Attempts to reach the Livonia Police Department were unsuccessful.

Advocate staff writer Ryan Broussard contributed to this article.