Driving student survives I-55 pileup, aces final roadway test

Driving instructor Gisela Chevalier recounts surviving the I-55 pileup with a student driver at the wheel. (Source: WVUE)
Published: Oct. 24, 2023 at 11:08 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Among the survivors of Monday’s Interstate-55 pileup was a student driver, taking her final roadway test, and her instructor.

They made it out of the 168-vehicle crash alive, unharmed and without a scratch on their car.

Instructor Gisela Chevalier said she got into her J&G International Driving School car Monday morning (Oct. 23) to test a student on the I-10 to I-55 route she’s used for years.

“I’m not afraid of fog. So, I told my student, ‘Don’t be afraid of fog,’” Chevalier said. “We have to drive on foggy days, on rainy days, so that’s OK.”

But on this foggy day, visibility dropped to near zero on I-55 near Manchac.

Chevalier’s student driver was behind the wheel. In front of their car was a flatbed trailer. Coming up behind them, a double 18-wheeler.

They both slammed on the brake and hoped for the best.

“I’m very proud of her, because she did what we taught her to do,” Chevalier said. “We are here because she handled it really good. Really brave.”

Chevalier was happy with her driver, but critical of those sharing the road that morning.

“A lot of cars were passing -- a little bit of speeding -- due to the smoke and fog. In my opinion, they were a little bit too fast,” Chevalier said. “A lot of them with the lights off. And that’s why that state trooper was almost going from car to car, in his car, ‘Hey turn the lights on.’ I had the automatic, but evidently it wasn’t enough.”

Not soon after, the pileups began, 911 calls were made and dispatchers sent whomever they could to assist victims.

“We do have everybody in route to y’all. Multiple fire departments, police and ambulance,” said an operator. “So, they’re coming that way, and they’ll get to you when they can.”

Chevalier says the cars around hers were smashed beyond recognition.

She and her student spent hours trapped on the bridge. They saw a fire truck driving in reverse to get to victims. They saw first responders getting out and walking where the road was impassable. And when it came time to give her student a final grade, she had no hesitation.

“She was really calm, too,” Chevalier said. “She was at the wheel when all that happened. When we were ready to leave and turn around, I took the wheel, because I thought it was too much for her, honestly,” Chevalier said. “She’s a master. She made 100 (for her grade), no doubt about it. She earned it.”

Chevalier says she graduated that driver’s husband as well, just last week.

Chevalier also didn’t wait long to conquer the fear of riding again. She said another student was tested Tuesday morning in the same car, on roughly the same route, albeit modified by the closed stretch of I-55 still being cleared of wreckage.

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