>Separate weathe-related crashes claim two and seriously injure another
Warming temperatures this week have been a welcomed sign to law enforcement agencies, medical workers and rescue teams based in Jefferson County that spent the first few days of the New Year responding to accidents that hit close to home.
Fog and icy road conditions led to three major accidents in the area last week, claiming the lives of two Central Oregonians and seriously injuring another.
Robert Shawn Ervin, a Jefferson County Emergency Medical Team technician, was killed on Highway 97 just south of Madras last Tuesday when a semi truck and trailer skidded out of control and fell on top of him. He was 43.
Eight hours later, Warm Springs police officer David Endicott was seriously injured when his patrol car was struck head-on by an oncoming vehicle attempting to pass several cars on Highway 26. Endicott remains at Bend's St. Charles Medical Center in serious condition recovering from multiple fractures in his legs and head injuries.
And on Thursday, a Sisters man was on the wrong end of a head-on collision on Highway 26 in the Warm Springs Reservation. Craig Kinne, 47, was killed when his blue Ford pickup was struck by a commercial tractor trailer.
The three accidents in as many days sent shockwaves through the community of rescuers and law enforcement agents that are responsible for handling these types of tragedies. But this time, two of the three accidents involved their own.
"Folks need to be careful," Jefferson County Sheriff Jack Jones said. "As a sheriff we get dispatched to most of the deaths in the county and the downside of living in a small county is you know everybody so all these accidents you go to hit close to home.
"It's been just a tragic last month and a half."
EMT member killed
Just before 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 1, Robert Ervin and two other EMT members responding to a non-injury car accident stopped briefly on the southbound shoulder of Highway 97 near milepost 100.5 to place flares alongside the road.
Their ambulance, with its emergency lights on, was facing north and partially in the oncoming highway lane in conditions where visibility was limited to about 50 yards, Oregon State Police trooper Carl Rhodes said.
The driver of the semi that crushed Ervin, Gordon Len Keen, 31, was reportedly "startled" by the ambulance when it came into his view through the heavy fog. He told OSP officers that he lost control on the ice as he applied his brakes.
"He steered the truck into the ditch to avoid the ambulance," Rhodes said. "He tried to take it into the ditch but he didn't know somebody was there."
The truck did not jackknife, as some reports have suggested. It struck the front-left fender of the ambulance and knocked it to the opposite shoulder of the highway with two EMT members inside. They did not sustain serious injuries.
Witnesses reported that Ervin, who had already placed the flares and was returning to the driver-side of the ambulance, climbed up the embankment to avoid the semi.
"He'd gotten up a little ways and turned to watch the truck hit the ambulance and he probably didn't realize the truck might roll over on top of him," Rhodes said.
He was killed on impact. The J.A. Nelms truck trailer was fully loaded with 80,000 pounds of cargo. It is unlikely Keen will face charges, OSP investigators said.
"It was just an unfortunate tragedy -- definitely weather related," OSP Sgt. Bruce Stecher said. "Everybody needs to be careful of the severe ice and fog. People can't see as well and stopping times are just not as quick as they'd be."
On the same day, Warm Springs officer David Endicott was hospitalized with serious injuries when a 1999 Chevrolet Silverado driven by Eric Nufer of Beaverton slammed into him head-on.
Warm Springs Police Chief Don Courtney said the patrol car's airbag and Endicott's bulletproof vest may have helped save his life. He had to be extricated from the twisted wreckage and transported to Mountain View Hospital by emergency medical services. Endicott was later transferred to St. Charles Medical Center where he underwent three hours of surgery.
The driver and three passengers of the Silverado were treated and released for minor injuries at Mountain View Hospital.
"You're talking about a Chevy Silverado that's a suburban versus a police unit that's pretty low to the ground," Courtney said. "The prognosis (for Endicott) is good and we're holding up very well here."
The accident, which occurred at 4:40 p.m., happened about 21 miles north of Warm Springs near milepost 81.
OSP is investigating the accident and charges could be filed against Nufer. According to a witness on the scene, the Silverado was attempting to pass several vehicles when it lost control on slippery conditions and struck Endicott's 2001 Ford Crown Victoria patrol car.
The highway was closed for 2 1/2 hours before one lane was reopened.
Sisters man killed
Forty-eight hours later, Warm Springs police, fire and medical personnel with assistance from Madras police and the Wasco County Sheriff's Office responded to another head-on collision at milepost 75 on Highway 26.
Craig Kinne of Sisters was pronounced dead at the scene at 4:38 p.m.
The highway was closed for two hours as wreckage was cleared from scene and ODOT officials and the other law enforcement agencies on hand investigated the accident.
It was determined that icy road conditions contributed to the accident in which John Bellinger's Pepsi tractor trailer slid into the opposite lane, striking Kinne's pickup.
Bellinger, 45, of Beaverton, was treated for minor injuries at Mountain View Hospital and released. No charges have been filed against him.
Accidents underscore dangers
Inclement weather has lead to seven motor vehicle-related fatalities over a 40-day period in the area supervised by Jefferson County medical and rescue teams.
On Nov. 24, a 5-year-old girl from California was killed on Highway 97 near milepost 58 when she was thrown from her family's vehicle as it rolled off the side of the road.
On Dec. 5, four Culver-area residents were killed when icy conditions caused their car to slide into a passing train on Feather Drive.
"How do you explain them?" asked Jones. "You look at these people and they're folks that go to church, volunteer, do all the right things and are important to the community. I'm trying to find an explanation on why these things are happening."
State and local law enforcement agencies beefed up their patrols over the holidays, issuing many more speeding, seatbelt and DUII citations and arrests than a year ago.
Oregon State Police also launched another "Drive Right" campaign this December, urging motorists to not only drive on the right side of highways, but to also drive "right" by traveling slow, sober and practicing caution on icy conditions.
During the campaign period, from Dec. 21-Jan. 2, 12 individuals were killed in fatal car crashes on Oregon highways.
Twelve people also died in Oregon during the same period a year ago, but there were many more close calls this year, OSP Information Officer Sally Gilpin said.
"We had a lot more speeding citations and a lot more crashes this year," she said. "And a majority of them occurred east of the Cascades."
Robert Warner, a tow-truck driver based in Warm Springs, said he has not gotten much sleep since the New Year.
"It's been real busy for the tow companies," he said. "People in my business are working 16-hour days."
The series of accidents have some local officials scratching their heads.
Said Jones: "What can we do? We can't live our lives afraid all the time but we've lost a lot of important people the last couple months. We need to communicate to folks, `Hey, we need you here.' "
And hope better weather is just around the corner.