Lawyer: Fatal crash shows the need for an overpassOfficials ID children, drivers involved in the collision near GF
The sudden, violent deaths of two children Wednesday morning in a two-vehicle collision at an intersection three miles west of Grand Forks highlight the need to make the intersection safer, a Grand Forks attorney said. Meanwhile, the local prosecutor is considering filing charges against, apparently, the driver of the truck that plowed into the side of a GMC van where U.S. Highway 2 crosses the county road leading to the Grand Forks International Airport.
By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald
The sudden, violent deaths of two children Wednesday morning in a two-vehicle collision at an intersection three miles west of Grand Forks highlight the need to make the intersection safer, a Grand Forks attorney said.
Meanwhile, the local prosecutor is considering filing charges against, apparently, the driver of the truck that plowed into the side of a GMC van where U.S. Highway 2 crosses the county road leading to the Grand Forks International Airport.
Kaylee-Jo Marie Wyatt, 8, and Kevin Boyer III, 5, were killed when the northbound van driven by Kevin Boyer Jr. was hit by a eastbound Volvo semi-truck pulling a UPS double van trailer set-up about 10 a.m. Wednesday in the intersection of U.S. Highway 2 and Grand Forks Country Road 5, the airport road, just west of Grand Forks.
A third child, XXAXX (pronounced Zax) Boyer, 3, was injured. The truck driver, Steve Nelson, Jamestown, N.D., was treated at Altru Hospital and released Wednesday evening. Kevin Boyer Jr. and his son were in satisfactory condition Thursday at Altru.
A man who said he was in the intersection and witnessed the crash told WDAZ-TV he was on the airport road and saw the light turn green, but the truck on Highway 2 failed to stop. It hit the driver’s side of the van, ripping open the passenger section. One of the children was ejected.
Serious charges could result, and officials did not say much Thursday.
The Highway Patrol was out again Thursday studying the accident scene with surveying instruments. Their report was forwarded late in the afternoon to Grand Forks County State’s Attorney Peter Welte, who said he had not seen it yet.
Because of the tragic and severe nature of the crash, he’s waiting to study the report before commenting on possible charges, Welte said.
Capt. Kevin Robson, commander of the Grand Forks District of the Highway Patrol, said the Patrol was not commenting at all yet on who might have been at fault in the collision, leaving all comment up to Welte.
The unusual circumspection is warranted by the serious nature of the crash, he said.
The tragic deaths of the children hit everyone hard. For lawyer Shirley Jahnke, it made her wonder if she could have done more years ago.
“I feel like I dropped the ball,” said Jahnke, her voice breaking a little.“It’s so sad, what happened to those two little children.”
Her own daughter, in college then, had a similar crash 19 years ago at same spot, within a foot or two, said Jahnke, who had just graduated that spring from UND’s law school.
Her daughter was a UND aviation student on her way back to campus on that autumn Saturday in 1991.
“We were at the NDSU-UND football game in Fargo,” Jahnke said of herself and her husband, Larry.
Their southbound daughter failed to yield at the stop sign on the airport road and pulled out in front of an eastbound car driven by an airman headed home from the Grand Forks Air Force Base.
By some miracle, neither driver was injured much, Jahnke said. Her daughter now is an attorney in the Twin Cities with three children of her own.
At the time, Jahnke began “raising bloody hell,” she said, with the Grand Forks County Commission and the state Department of Transportation. “I had a 7-foot computer printout of all the accidents that had happened there.”
Her point was that the traffic numbers and speeds traveled at the intersection warranted an overpass.
She got polite demurrals, mostly, Jahnke remembers.
“My push was for an overpass, and then everybody just kind of ‘bah humbugged’ me on that and said, ‘Where do you think the money’s going to come from?’”
But she won her argument, in part, at least, because two years later, lights were installed at the intersection, which previously had only stop signs on the north-south airport road and nothing on Highway 2.
She said it took two more accidents there after her daughter’s: UND President Kendall Baker and a county commissioner whose name now slips her memory, Jahnke said. Neither was injured seriously. But maybe she could have won the argument for an overpass if she had kept on pushing, she said.
But by May 1992, Jahnke’s attention to the issue flagged. Understandably.
Her husband, state District Judge Lawrence Jahnke, was shot in his courtroom by a former Grand Forks city councilman, Reuben Larson, who was battling a child custody and support case before the judge.
The judge’s wounds were nearly mortal, and it took him months to recover, helped by his wife. Her activism, meanwhile, shifted to persuading county commissioners to install metal detectors in the court house.
The metal detectors now seem old hat. Judge Jahnke remains on the bench. Larson remains in the state prison.
Now, looking back, Shirley Jahnke wishes she had, somehow, picked up again her push to get an overpass built.
“What they did was kind of appease me with the lights and said basically, the overpass wasn’t going to happen and here’s the next best thing we’re going to do,” she said Thursday.
Before the lights, there were many accidents, according to data she gathered, Jahnke said.
“I really do think the lights have helped, but it’s never been the overall solution. I still think the overpass is so warranted.”
It is one of the busiest rural intersections in the state, but it hasn’t been the scene of an inordinate number of crashes, state officials say.
In 2009, according to state DOT numbers, 11,000 vehicles passed through the intersection, total from all four directions, on average every day, based on biannual surveys done by DOT.
No other rural intersection on Highway 2 matches that number, and only a few on Interstate 29 between Grand Forks and Fargo and on Interstate 94 between West Fargo and Bismarck garner as many or more, based on a DOT map online. And most if not all of those rural intersections involve interstate overpasses.
For comparison’s sake, the state’s busiest intersection is inside the city of Fargo, the intersection of I-94 and I-29, which had a daily average vehicle count of 46,200. And, of course, a large, double-stack overpass set-up.
Interestingly, at the Grand Forks Air Force Base less than 10 miles west of the airport road, the intersection of Highway 2 with a county road on an overpass, sees about 6,700 vehicles a day, according to DOT’s map.
The intersection north of Larimore of state Highway 18 and Highway 2, which has only stop signs on Highway 18, gets about a third as many vehicles as the airport road/Highway 2 location.
Robson, of the Highway Patrol’s Grand Forks district, went by the airport road/Highway 2 intersection Thursday on business.
“I would not say that intersection is any more dangerous than the intersection of Highway 18 and U.S. 2, or Highway 1 and U.S. 2 (at Lakota),” he said. “Any rural intersection can be dangerous. If you have higher speed limits of 55 mph or higher and if a crash happens at any of those intersections, it has the potential to be a very dangerous crash.”
The intersection of Highway 2 and the airport road has lots of traffic, Robson said, because of the Air Force Base, plus Highway 2’s main arterial nature and the heavy flow of UND aviation students using the airport road to and from the airport.
The unusual nature of the series of yellow lights that flash on to warn Highway 2 drivers, slowing, eastbound, from 70 mph, of an upcoming red light at the intersection perhaps can tempt drivers to bend the law a little and try to make the light, Robson said.
His troopers know it and watch it closely and enforce the speeding laws there strictly, he said. Last year, a sobriety checkpoint was set up at the site.
But there aren't an unusual number of serious accidents there, he said.
From Jan. 1, 2005, to Dec. 31, 2009, there were 21 crashes there, three of them resulting in injuries to six people and no fatalities, said Peggy Anderson of the state DOT office in Bismarck.
But Jahnke is convinced that the numbers still warrant an overpass and that the deaths of the two children Wednesday prove it. The money question shouldn’t be such a problem, she said.
As an attorney, she travels regularly to court hearings in Grafton, N.D., up I-29.
“I see all those overpasses and never once have I seen a car on one of those overpasses,” she said. “Highway 2 is the equivalent of an interstate highway. It has four lanes and the traffic.”
Jahnke said it’s time to revive the overpass debate.
“I would gladly jump on board and start trying to do something to get this going again.”
Her emotions again choke off her words.
“If anything good can come out of the loss of these two (children). … I know nothing that would be good enough, as far as I’m concerned. But as I told Larry back then, it’s just a matter of time.”
Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to email@example.com.