ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
Responding at the scene of highway accidents and dealing with the emotions of fatalities take their toll on personnel dedicated to serving the public.
Trooper Mike Ottensmeier with the Kansas Highway Patrol was on the scene of a fiery fatality June 28 at a construction zone along U.S. Highway 50, between Peabody and Florence. He also covered a double-fatality accident in May at a construction zone between Walton and Peabody along U.S 50.
“We had a lot of the same circumstance,” Ottensmeier said about the two accidents. “We had a vehicle on fire. This time, no one was ejected out of the vehicles. We still had four vehicles involved-we still had commercial vehicles involved. I had death at the scene.”
In the recent chain-reaction accident, a semi traveling 64 mph initially ran into a Dodge truck carrying a driver and passenger slowing or stopped at a construction zone.
“The biggest thing about this one was that one of the victims was still alive as they were trying to put the fire out, and they weren’t able to put it out,” Ottensmeier said with his voice cracking.
“That was kind of tough. He knew he wasn’t going to live. He was still moving, and he was still talking, even though the truck was on fire. It’s a chilling feeling to know somebody is suffering in that vehicle, and you can’t help them. You can’t get to them.”
The semi driver told Ottensmeier he saw the warning signs but didn’t realize traffic was stoping until it was too late. Preliminary evidence indicated that drowsiness could have contributed to the driver’s inattention.
At the scene, Ottensmeier questioned the driver of the semi to try to unravel how he could see the warning signs along 1.2 miles of roadway approaching the construction zone and flagman and not stop his vehicle.
“His comment to me was, ‘Have you ever ridden in a Cadillac?'” Ottensmeier said.
“He said, ‘Take the ride of a Cadillac, and increase it by three, and that’s how comfortable these trucks are now days made by all the trucking companies.’
“They’re built for long haul, and they’re built for comfort. I believe in comfort, but where do we stop the line of comfort to where it comes to the safety of the drivers behind the wheel of these big semi trucks rolling down the road at highway speed?”
Two days after the accident and one day after another fatality accident in the same area, Ottensmeier and others were working to finish the required paperwork detailing the deaths of seven people.
“It’s been a real long week,” Ottensmeier said.
“We had troopers out there and lieutenants with 20-years experience who said they have never seen accidents with such magnitude and destruction. All the emergency workers out there-all the EMS, firefighters, police officers, troopers, sheriff’s deputies-had a tear in their eye and were asking themselves, ‘Why did this happen?'”