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5 road workers killed by truck

Driver loses control; tells son brakes failed

Thursday, October 11, 2001

By Michael A. Fuoco, Cindi Lash and Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Five highway workers were killed yesterday when an 81-year-old driver apparently lost control of his apple delivery truck and plowed into a construction site on Route 60 in Beaver County. The driver told his son afterward that the vehicle's brakes failed just before the accident.

The overturned truck rests at the end of the Vanport Bridge. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)
Close call for the coroner

Crash site map

The driver, William James McClelland, owner of McClelland's White Hall Farms in North Strabane, said that when he stepped on the brakes of the truck loaded with apples "there was nothing there," his son, Robert, recounted last night. "He had nowhere to go."

At the same time, Robert McClelland wondered aloud whether his father may have suffered a previously unknown health problem while driving, contributing to the accident.

A state police accident reconstruction team, which was at the scene all day, had not determined the cause of the crash on northbound Route 60 in Potter Township near the Vanport Bridge. McClelland and a passenger, both of whom were wearing seat belts, were uninjured.

State police said no charges were filed against McClelland, but said the accident remained under investigation.

Killed were Frank Black, 26, of Knox, Clarion County; Aaron Post, 35, of Meadville, Crawford County; Kim Johns, 46, of Kittanning, Armstrong County; Jeanne Sprague, 44, of Reynoldsville, Jefferson County; and James Trimpey, 54, of Confluence, Somerset County.

Three of the victims died at the scene of the 10:12 a.m. crash. Black was pronounced dead at UPMC Presbyterian and another victim died at The Medical Center, Beaver.

Trimpey was a member of a laborers union; the others were members of Heavy Construction Carpenters Local 2274. All were employed by Dick Corp., the general contractor for the highway project.

Route 60 between the Route 51 and Route 18 interchanges was closed for more than eight hours, causing gridlock on those and other area roads throughout the day.

The accident occurred on a straight section of four-lane Route 60 approaching the Vanport Bridge over the Ohio river. The highway descends for more than a mile in a long, sloping grade before reaching the bridge.

Because of the construction, traffic was restricted to the curb lanes in each direction leading to the accident scene. The posted speed limit through the construction zone was 40 mph.

The victims, along with a number of co-workers, were inside the construction area -- the closed passing lanes in each direction.

McClelland, whose 170-year-old landmark family farm on Route 19 produces more than 20 varieties of apples as well as peaches and other fruits, was transporting apples grown on the 120-acre farm. With him was Margaret Chancellor, 79, the farm's secretary and bookkeeper.

McClelland's vehicle went out of control, veered sharply to the left and slammed into three construction barrels, nearly flattening them. It continued speeding through the work area until it came upon the five victims, who were standing about 12 feet from the bridge.

After striking the workers, the truck slammed head-on into the bridge's medial barrier and flipped onto its roof, blocking the southbound lanes and spilling some of its cargo onto the roadway. The force of the crash tore the front axle from the body of the truck.

Robert McClelland said he and his father were heartsick over the crash and the deaths of the five workers.

"I just feel awful, and I know he does, too," he said.

Robert McClelland said he knew nothing about the crash or his father's involvement until a farm employee reached him after he returned to his Washington, Pa., home yesterday afternoon from his job at International Paper.

By that time, he said, his father already had been treated at The Medical Center in Beaver and was waiting for a family friend to pick him up and drive him home to Washington County.

"I just talked to him [on the telephone] and he's all shaken up," Robert McClelland said last evening. "He knows he killed two people and that's bad enough, but I know he doesn't realize all of what happened.

"He's rough and tough ... not the kind who usually gets shaken up, but he's very shaken up now."

The box truck that the elder McClelland was driving is one of the farm's larger vehicles and is used to deliver large loads of fruit, Robert McClelland said. He does not work at the farm and does not know when the truck was last inspected or serviced. State police interviewed him at the hospital, Trooper Cheryl Michalski said.

Robert McClelland said his father is very active and vigorous, working regularly at the farm and driving tractor-trailer loads of apples each year to a cannery in York County.

"He still sprays the orchard and gets out there and works hard. But you know, he is over 80 years old and it does cross your mind," Robert McClelland said of the possibility a medical problem contributed to the accident.

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokesman Dick Skrinjar said the six-mile road project, which was about 90 percent complete, involved the rehabilitation of three bridges. About 32,000 vehicles pass through the work site each day. Construction was scheduled to be completed by the end of November.

Skrinjar said he could not remember another incident where so many road construction workers were killed.

Last year, he said, there were 1,988 work zone crashes on state highways. In those crashes, 23 were killed, including one construction worker, and 1,757 were injured, including 20 construction workers.

"Working on the roads is serious business. It is one of the most at-risk occupations anyone can have," Skrinjar said.

A year ago, PennDOT started a new campaign called "My Mommy Works Here" to try to slow traffic in road construction areas. That campaign followed the "Give Them A Brake" campaign.

Ironically, yesterday was the Federal Highway Administration's first ever "Put the Brakes on Fatalities Day," a day focusing on saving lives on America's highways.

Michael Welsh, business agent for Carpenters Local 2274, said his local has about 1,000 members in 33 counties in Pennsylvania.

"I can't remember the last time we lost anyone," he said. "The mood around here is not very good."

Johns had worked as a carpenter for nearly two decades and had been working on the Route 60 project for about two years, according to family friend Lisa Woyt.

He was born in Okinawa, Japan, while his father was serving in the military. His family's roots were in Armstrong County and his parents returned there while he was an infant, Woyt said.

Johns grew up in Adrian, north of Kittanning, and graduated from East Brady High School. After graduation, he worked for about 12 years at the former Volkswagen plant in New Stanton before becoming a union carpenter, Woyt said.

He and his wife, Beth, are the parents of four children: Rachel, 20; Sarah, 14; Zachary, 7; and Jacob, 5.

Post graduated with honors from Conneaut Valley High School in 1984 and attended St. Peter Church in Conneautville. A gifted craftsman who kept a well-stocked workbench in his parents' basement, he worked briefly for a construction company before following his father, Fred Post, and brother, Fred Scott Post of Conneautville, into the carpenters union local.

"It was a family tradition for the Posts," said his mother, Ila Post, also of Conneautville.

In addition to his parents and brother, Post is survived by two sons, Zachary, 4, and Aiden, 2; his fiancee, Lisa Pope of Meadville; another brother, Andrew Post of Conneautville; and three sisters, Michelle Post, Shannon Austin and Sarah Reisinger, all of Conneautville.

Arrangements are incomplete but will be handled by White-Cool Funeral Home, Conneautville.

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