ANTWERP, N.Y. (AP) — The truck driver who plowed into a line of cars queued up behind a paving project in northern New York was alert but failed to notice construction signs or slowing cars in the moments before the fiery crash that killed six people, police said Friday.
The 18-wheeler driven by James A. Mills Jr., 45, of Myerstown, Pa., was headed south about 9 a.m. Thursday on a straight, slightly downhill stretch of rural Route 11 near the Fort Drum Army post when it slammed into an SUV, triggering a chain reaction that ultimately involved six cars.
Mills tried to brake before the impact and didn't appear to be impaired or distracted. An inspection of his cellphone showed no texts or calls immediately before the accident, said State Police Investigator Rick Hathaway. Mills has cooperated with police and helped pull an injured state Department of Transportation worker out of his vehicle before it caught fire.
The line of cars had slowed or stopped where paving was being done on a rural stretch of highway. Five people, including four from the same family, died in an SUV that burst into flames, and a woman whose SUV flipped over died at a hospital. State transportation worker Lewis Lottie Jr., whose truck caught fire, remained in critical condition at a Syracuse hospital,
A state police accident reconstruction team is using a computer simulation program and interviewing witnesses to determine the sequence of events in the crash. They'll analyze skid marks, gouges in the roads, debris and other evidence.
"We'll be able to say with certainty where the vehicles were in place," Hathaway said. "That will give us a better idea of exactly what happened."
Hathaway said it appears drivers had plenty of warning about the ongoing road repaving project, but Mills didn't notice the caution signs until it was too late. The state Department of Transportation had inspected the site Thursday morning and found that the signs met department standards.
Bill Reynolds, a spokesman for the DOT, declined to comment.
Mills was taken to a hospital for toxicology tests and released. The county district attorney's office is investigating whether any charges are warranted.
State police identified the driver of the SUV that exploded in flames as Laurie Dana, 42, an elementary school speech therapist from Lawrence, a rural town about 60 miles northeast of the crash site and 15 miles south of the Canadian border. Also in the vehicle and killed were her two daughters, Caitlyn, 14, and Lauryn, 11, and her mother-in-law, Janet Dana, 69. The fifth victim was Shannon Planty, 14, a friend of Caitlyn's.
The driver of the other SUV was identified as Maryann Gregory, 59, of Dickinson Center in Franklin County.
The crash happened near Fort Drum, 85 miles northeast of Syracuse.
The tractor-trailer is owned by MBM Customized Foodservice Distribution based in Rocky Mount, N.C. A spokesman for the company didn't return a call seeking comment. The truck was hauling a full load of yogurt from a plant in neighboring Franklin County. The vehicle was impounded for examination by police investigators.
Trucks operated by the company, which is registered with the federal Department of Transportation as Meadowbrook Meat Company Inc., have been involved in 75 accidents over the past two years, including one crash that killed one person and 23 crashes that resulted in at least one injury, according to data compiled by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
The data, current through June 22, showed that 1,536 vehicle inspections resulted in 11 percent of vehicles being taken off the road while 2,947 driver inspections resulted in 2 percent of drivers being taken off the road.