Highway 2 crash witnesses speak outMichael Colley saw the Dec. 22 collision that took the lives of two small children just west of Grand Forks and, like other witnesses, is pretty sure what happened. The veteran over-the-road trucker said it was clear a fellow trucker made a mistake at what appears to be a dangerous intersection.
By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald
Michael Colley saw the Dec. 22 collision that took the lives of two small children just west of Grand Forks and, like other witnesses, is pretty sure what happened. The veteran over-the-road trucker said it was clear a fellow trucker made a mistake at what appears to be a dangerous intersection.
He contacted the Herald, saying he wants to do whatever he can to help in the aftermath of what he described as a horrific accident that raises questions about the safety of the intersection.
Determining what happened will be significant and the Grand Forks County State’s Attorney’s office continues to study investigative reports because criminal charges could result.
Both drivers involved have hired lawyers, one a criminal defense attorney and one an attorney who specializes in wrongful death litigation.
The fatal collision two weeks ago of an eastbound Volvo semi-truck and a northbound GMC van at the intersection of U.S. Highway 2 and Grand Forks County Road 5, known as the airport road, killed Kaylee-Jo Marie Wyatt, 8, and Kevin Boyer III, 5.
The driver of the van, Kevin Boyer Jr., 39, Grand Forks, and Xxaxx Boyer, 3, were injured; both have been discharged from Altru Hospital in Grand Forks.
Steven Nelson, 64, Jamestown, N.D., was the driver of the eastbound semi-truck; he was treated at Altru and released later Dec. 22.
Little official information on what happened has been released because it quickly became a possible criminal investigation, said Capt. Kevin Robson of the North Dakota Highway Patrol, which responded to the accident. He turned over Patrol reports to the Grand Forks County State’s Attorney Peter Welte, Robson said.
Welte said this week the investigation isn’t taking longer than other comparable cases, and that the serious nature of the accident demands a comprehensive and methodical investigation. All of the reports, including some key scientific ones, aren’t in yet, Welte said.
After spending days on the case himself, Welte assigned the case Tuesday to Assistant State’s Attorney David Jones.
“We are not going to decide a case like this until we have all the evidence, and that evidence comes in multiple forms, including the equipment, the operators, the conditions and other factors,” Jones said. “We are going to want all of that before we make any charging decision.”
Colley, like other witnesses, is clear about the key question.
“I know those lights were on red,” Colley said, about the east-west lights on Highway 2 at the time. “What I suspect is that the driver of the other semi took a chance, decided he thought he could make it.”
Colley, a veteran driver for an Edmonton, Alta., trucking firm, had just left Grand Forks, heading west on Highway 2, when he slowed as the flashing yellow lights ahead of the intersection signaled a soon change to red at the traffic lights.
As it happens, Colley was driving a 2005 Volvo, the same truck tractor as was Nelson, who was heading east into the intersection at the same time.
Colley said he was down to about 3 mph and about 50 feet from the intersection’s red light when he looked down to check his computer.
“I heard the impact,” he said. “I (thought) the truck was going to push the van into me, and the van began spinning, and came to stop in the median, with so much snow.”
Nelson’s truck jackknifed and ended in the median, too, with the tractor facing west, almost pinned against the UPS double-trailer it was hauling.
Colley said Nelson’s semi appeared to be going 55 to 60 mph when it hit the van.
“It was very high impact,” he said.
Colley got out, dialed 911, and walked up to the passenger side of the truck, which was closest to him.
“I tried to open the passenger door, but it wouldn’t open. I could see he was upright. He was obviously shook up. He looked very frightful. He was staring right through me and took a while to answer. I said, ‘Are you OK? Are you OK?’ and he finally just nodded his head.”
Colley then walked toward the van, where several other people had stopped and rushed to help Kevin Boyer Jr., and his son, Xxaxx, 3.
Kaylee-Jo Marie Wyatt, 8, was in the back of the van, and Kevin Boyer III, 5, was outside in the snow; both appeared lifeless as people gave them aid, he said.
Colley said he told investigating officers on the scene what he saw: that it appeared Nelson had run the red light. An officer told him that corroborated what the driver of a vehicle that had approached the light alongside Nelson’s truck said — the light was red and the truck didn’t stop for it.
That fits with what David Cunningham, Grand Forks, told WDAZ-TV. He and his son were leaving the airport, heading south at the intersection and saw the accident happen in front of them. It was clear to Cunningham that Nelson’s truck ran a red light. He himself had a green light, Cunningham said, and he was only a second or two short of being hit by the truck. Cunningham’s son gave a similar account of the accident.
Road conditions were relatively good, Colley said, and didn’t appear to be a factor in stopping.
It was the first time he has driven that stretch, Colley said, but he questioned whether the flashing yellow lights ahead of the intersection give truckers, especially, enough time to stop with a load.
Colley said the “horrific” accident had made the past two weeks difficult, despite his record of having driven about 500,000 miles the past four years across the United States and Canada. He had been ready to spend 11 hours on the road that day, but had to pull over in Minot, about three hours later, because he was so disturbed by the accident, Colley said. It still bothers him now, he said this week.
After reading about the Grand Forks lawyer, Shirley Jahnke, who wants to continue her previous push to get an overpass built at the site, Colley said he wanted to do what he can to help.
Jahnke was spurred by an accident her daughter was in at the intersection nearly two decades ago when there were no lights, but only stop signs on the airport road. Although traffic lights, plus the added flashing yellow lights about 200 yards west and east of the intersection, were added two years after her daughter’s accident, that’s still not enough, Jahnke told the Herald two weeks ago.
The heavy traffic, partly caused by UND aviation students going to the airport to fly, justifies an overpass, Jahnke says, pledging to take up the issue again.
Seeing Jahnke’s comments, Colley said he agrees and that “the intersection is a disaster area and isn’t much of an improvement on a four-way stop, if any.”
Colley questioned whether the timing of the traffic lights at the intersection is appropriate and said perhaps the green lights for north-south traffic should be delayed more after the east-west lights turns red.
“It amazes me that if I was just approaching the stop line and the GMC van is already proceeding across the main highway, surely there is insufficient time between the lights changing between east-west and north-south. This needs to be reviewed.”
A family member said Kevin Boyer Jr. was referring all comments to the Moorhead attorney he has hired, Pat Weir, of the Vogel Law Firm. Weir, who specializes in personal injury and wrongful death cases, said he can’t comment yet because the investigative reports have not been made available.
Nelson, contacted at his home in Jamestown, referred all comments to his attorney, Alex Reichert of Grand Forks.
Reichert said he had been retained Monday by Nelson, who he said “is fully cooperating with the investigation.”
“It’s too early for me to comment on any factual issues in this case,” he said. “But I can tell you my client is deeply saddened by this, and for what it’s worth, he wants the families to know that his heart goes out to them.”
Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to email@example.com.