Hamilton County dispatcher can't forget I-275 pileup calls

Barrett Cohen recalls handling fatal accident

MAINEVILLE, Ohio - Barrett Cohen has been with the Hamilton County Communications Center for 14 years and has worked his share of emergency situations as a communications officer.

However, the Maineville man isn't likely to forget the morning of Monday, Jan. 21, 2013.

It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day and things were fairly quiet at the center on Hamilton Avenue in Burlington.

Cohen was handling routine work and had only taken one emergency call as the clock ticked toward noon.

All of the sudden the phone began ringing off the hook around 11:35 a.m.

He looked outside, noticed it was snowing and knew something major was taking place. How big? He didn't know, but he would quickly find out.

Ninety-six vehicles had collided during a freak snow squall that produced near whiteout conditions on westbound I-275 near Pippin Road in Colerain Township.

The phone in front of Cohen rang. He picked it up and heard an out-of-breath man call for help.

"He started the conversation off with ‘There's a young girl down,' – something to that effect," Cohen recalled Thursday sitting in his kitchen.

"‘Is she breathing?'" Cohen remembered asking.

"‘No,'" came the reply and the call just went down from there.

As the seconds ticked away, Cohen made sure that the first responding emergency crews knew exactly where the non-breathing girl was located. Then, he got back on the phone to help the caller.

"Once we found out she wasn't breathing we offered CPR," he said. "The gentleman was there – an off-duty fireman from Indiana – He was amazing. He kind of took everything on his own shoulders. But I could kind of tell he needed some assistance to kind of get things started and we did the best we could with the situation that presented itself."

In his mind, Cohen envisioned that it was his 3- and 5-year-old sons lying in the snow on that interstate median, so he said he went into panic mode.

The thing that sticks in his mind is what he heard over the phone just moments after he was thinking about his sons.

The victim, Sammy Reagan, 12, of South Lebanon, had been hit in the back of the head as a cable from the vehicle restraint system snapped back after a vehicle had hit it. Her mother, Jill, who had been driving her two sons to Perfect North Slopes in a separate car, was on the ground kneeling next to her oldest child.

"I keep hearing the mother say, ‘Sammy, it's Mommy. Sammy, it's Mommy,'" Cohen recalled. "That just keeps ringing back into my ears. I haven't had a phone call that's affected me as much as this one has days after."

Cohen said he wished he could have done more to help the girl, but feels he did as much as he could given the circumstances.

When Cohen got home the evening of the accident, his wife came into the kitchen with the sad news that Sammy had died and that she was virtually a neighbor.

"She went to Columbia Elementary School right up the street," he said. "It was like this thing just keeps getting worse and worse. She has friends on her street and it really its home. This has been a tough one. There's no doubt about it."

The Cohen family is no stranger to tragedy. Cohen's younger brother, A.J. Cohen, died in a fire at the University of Dayton in 2000. A.J. Cohen's alma mater, Summit Country Day School, holds a memorial baseball tournament in his honor every spring.

Cohen's recollections of Monday morning were contained in a "I-275 mass vehicle accident after-accident report" put together by the Hamilton Communications Center. The initial data indicated suggested 80 vehicles had been involved, with eight emergency departments responding to help with the 30 injuries and one fatality.

The communications center received 43 911 calls and logged 2,784 radio transmissions while handling the incident.

Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Spokesperson Jim Knapp said Thursday that the final accident report will take two or three weeks to complete.

He added that the actual number of vehicles involved was 96, with four police departments currently involved in the investigation.

Colerain Township EMS Director Greg Brown said the total number of patients transported to area hospitals was 27 and that 16 life squad units from 13 different departments were involved.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil said that sort of mutual aid is going to become standard as municipal budgets continue to grow tighter and tighter.

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