Accident at U.S. 50 construction zone takes two lives

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
A double-fatality accident occurred May 10 in a construction zone at Milepost 287 on U.S. Highway 50, about 11/2 miles west of the Harvey/Marion county line.

Waiting for a pilot car, a line of cars was slowing or coming to a stop when a westbound semi-truck tractor trailer failed to stop. It ran into the back of a Ford van.

Brandi R. Billbe, 40, and Lori B. Leeders, 43, both of Marion, were ejected from the van and pronounced dead at the scene.

Billbe was in the driver’s seat, and Leeders was in the front-passenger seat. Neither woman was wearing a seat belt, according to trooper Mike Ottensmeier, of the Kansas Highway Patrol.

A third passenger in the van, Ashley Billbe, 16, of Marion was in the back-passenger seat and wearing a seat belt. She was airlifted by Eagle Med and taken to Via Christi Regional Medical Center-St. Francis Campus in Wichita.

“She was in extremely critical condition,” Ottensmeier said May 12. By Thursday, Marion County Sheriff Lee Becker reported that Ashley’s medical outlook was optimistic, according to a spokesperson on the teen’s behalf.

The driver of the truck, J. B. Miser, 61, of Emporia was taken by Newton Emergency Medical Services to Wesley Medical Center in Wichita. The truck is owned by Red Line Inc., an Emporia trucking company.

In a statement taken from a witness at the scene, the truck driver told the witness he had fallen asleep at the wheel of the truck, Ottensmeier said.

The accident occurred at 2:10 p.m., and Ottensmeier was notified four minutes later. He arrived on the scene at 2:25 p.m.

“When I was about three miles east of Peabody, I could see west,” Ottensmeier said. “When I was traveling west, I saw a large flame of fire go up in the air, and I saw a trail of large black smoke.”

Seconds after the explosion, Ottensmeier heard a radio call from the firefighters on the scene reporting the semi truck had exploded.

“As I’m arriving on the scene, traffic is backed up in both directions-Highway 50 is completely stopped,” Ottensmeier said. “I see the trail of dark black smoke going from the south ditch to the northern sky. We have complete utter chaos.”

According to Ottensmeier’s report, the semi truck initially hit the back end of the van, which spun around sideways and hit the back of a Federal Express truck driven by Ryan D. Kugler of New Cambria. In a chain reaction, the Fed Ex truck in turn hit a vehicle in front of it, a 1996 Chevrolet passenger vehicle, driven by Katherine M. Boesker of Peabody.

“Both of them were looked at on the scene, and neither one of them wanted to go to the hospital,” Ottensmeier said. “There were no obvious signs of any injuries.”

When Ottensmeier arrived at the accident, the van was in the north ditch and facing south.

“It had been damaged severely,” he said. “EMS people were working on the victims there.”

A semi-truck driver from Lubbock, Texas, witnessed the truck hit the van. The semi truck struck the van and made a sharp left across the eastbound lanes to the shoulder of U.S. 50, finally turning over and coming to rest on its right side.

The witness went over to the overturned truck and helped remove Miser. “That guy saved the truck driver’s life,” Ottensmeier said. “As they were getting down off the vehicle and walking through the ditch, that’s when the truck exploded.”

Among those helping through the evening were the following: firefighters from Peabody, Newton, Walton and Marion; EMS from Peabody, Florence and Newton; police officers from around the county; the Marion County Sheriff’s Department; the Harvey County Sheriff’s Department; highway-patrol troopers from Newton and Marion counties; and the highway-patrol supervisor from Wichita.

While the burning truck was engulfed in smoke and firefighters worked to put it out, officials had no information about the contents and kept back a safe distance in case the truck contained hazardous material.

Ottensmeier said they eventually learned the truck cargo was angel-food cake.

“What we’re thinking at this point is that the fuel tank on the right side of the truck was ripped off, which in turn may have caused a spray of diesel fuel,” Ottensmeier said. “And some type of spark ignited the flame. The truck is a total loss. There’s nothing left but parts of the engine and the frame.”

In reviewing the construction site, Ottensmeier said, “That particular construction zone, they did not reduce the speed from 65 miles per hour. So, the speed limit in that construction zone is still 65 miles an hour, if the pilot car wants to go that fast.”

Keeping the speed limit to 65 was a joint decision of the Kansas Department of Transportation and the private contractor of the company working on the highway, Ottensmeier said.

“We don’t have any control over that. That’s over at KDOT. They made that decision, and we agree with that.”

East of the construction zone, beginning about two miles before the accident site, four different highway signs were posted. At the Marion/Harvey county line, near milepost 287, the first sign warned that road construction was ahead.

“At the top of a small hill, there was a sign that said, ‘Do Not Pass,'” Ottensmeier said.

“A third sign said, ‘One Lane Road Ahead.’ And then, there was a sign with a silhouette of a man and a flag to indicate there’s a flag man ahead. The road was well marked to where it would have given the drivers more than enough time” to slow down, even if a line of cars was stopped ahead.

The driver of the truck was asked by officials if he wanted to make a statement but declined, saying that he requested a lawyer.

“At this point, he is refusing to make any statements until he speaks with his attorney,” Ottensmeier said.

The Kansas Highway Patrol Critical Highway Accident Response team was also on the scene of the accident and completed a forensic mapping of the area.

“I don’t have any information on that and won’t have any time soon, because that takes a little bit of time,” Ottensmeier said. “So, right now, we don’t have any information on how fast he was going. And we’re waiting for the blood work and urine work to come back from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to see where we stand on that.”

While officials worked at the accident along U.S. 50, traffic was diverted west at Interstate 135 and east at Florence. By about 9:50 p.m., the highway patrol notified central communications in Salina that U.S. 50 was open for traffic.

The morning after the accident, teachers in the Marion school district read a prepared statement to students informing them about the incident, said Phoebe Janzen, Marion High School counselor.

“Most kids knew by Tuesday,” Janzen said.

“As many (fatalities) as we’ve had over the last four years, kids are processing well, and they’re able to move on and focus and cope with the awful tragedies we’ve had in the past. They seem to have a good network of support with family members, community and students.”

Hillsboro Elementary School counselor Mike Moran visited Marion Elementary School to help counsel students there, and Marion County school psychologist Regina Kimbral was available, too.

Ashley’s brother, Kevin, 14, was at home the day of the accident. Billbe and Leeders have left many others behind to mourn them.

“They both had natural children as well as foster children there” at their home in Marion, Becker said.

In retrospect, Ottensmeier offered words of advice to all motorists.

“We have to remember that the highways we drive on aren’t unsafe,” he said. “It’s the people who are on the highway that make it unsafe.”

When motorists find themselves stopped or slowing down at similar construction sites as the one on U.S. 50, Ottensmeier suggested they leave space in front of them.

“Stop and give yourself a car distance or two car lengths to give yourself an out, and always be checking in the mirror,” Ottensmeier said.

“The biggest thing is always wear your seat belts. It’s just sad. If they had been seatbelted in, it would have been a whole different outcome. That’s what it comes down to.”

A memorial trust fund is being established in honor of Brandi, and monies will be used for the needs of her children. Contributions may be sent in care of Zeiner Funeral Home of Marion.

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