Archive for Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Two construction workers killed on U.S. 59; two women in custody

September 12, 2007

By Mike Belt

Investigators are trying to determine why a motorist barreled through a construction area Tuesday morning, killing two highway workers.

Two women were taken into custody when the truck they were traveling in was stopped by law enforcement officers after an 11-mile chase that led into Osage County. A spike strip was used to flatten two of the truck's tires. Charges are pending.

"The investigation will probably take a number of days," said Kansas Highway Patrol Lt. John Eichkorn.

Eichkorn declined to speculate on the circumstances of the incident that occurred shortly before 10 a.m. on U.S. Highway 59, 4 miles south of Lawrence at the south edge of Pleasant Grove.

"I think it is important to let the investigators gather all of the information necessary before we make a determination," he said.

One of the victims was identified as Tyrone T. Korte, 30, of Seneca, an engineering technician who had worked for the Kansas Department of Transportation since 2002. The second victim was Rolland "Ron" Griffith, 24, of El Dorado, an employee with Dustrol Inc. of Towanda, a contractor for the highway repaving project that began Monday. Griffith had worked for Dustrol for less than a year, said Jean Thompson, the firm's safety director.

Both were wearing safety vests, officers said.

The women in the truck, a 2002 Chevy with South Dakota plates, were Ramona I. Morgan, 48, and Sabrina J. Morgan, 26, both of Chewelah, Wash. Authorities said Ramona Morgan was the driver. The women were detained and being interviewed in Osage County, Eichkorn said Tuesday evening. It was not clear whether they were under arrest or in jail.

At the scene

Lauretta Hendricks Backus, a retired art teacher who lives southwest of Lawrence, was taking her cat to the Baldwin Junction Veterinary Clinic when she saw the first signs of trouble.

As she traveled south on U.S. Highway 59, construction narrowed the road to one lane, while a worker standing in the roadway carried a stop sign to hold up traffic. Backus slowed down; the truck ahead of her did not.

"There's this one truck ahead of me," Backus said Tuesday evening. "And I see the flag person waving frantically, like 'Stop, stop, stop!'"

The truck did not stop, Backus said, instead driving ahead -- striking the stop sign and snapping it in half, speeding up over the hill and out of sight. The worker, unharmed, frantically began calling to her colleagues on the other side of the hill to warn them about the truck.

Backus soon learned that two construction workers were hit.

Douglas County Sheriff's officers and Highway Patrol troopers along with area fire and ambulance crews responded to the incident after emergency dispatchers received a 911 call. Because of the construction project, traffic was already narrowed down to one lane. Flaggers and pilot cars were guiding traffic through the 3-mile work zone. Traffic soon backed up for more than a mile in both directions from the crash scene.

At 10:12 a.m., a Highway Patrol trooper saw the truck on U.S. Highway 56, Eichkorn said. The trooper attempted to stop the truck and a pursuit began. The chase ended 10 minutes later south of Scranton after Osage County officers deployed spikes on the highway.

U.S. 59 was blocked to through traffic at Douglas County Road 458 north of the accident scene and North 650 Road south of the scene. Special accident investigative teams from the Highway Patrol and sheriff's office were called. That section of the highway remained closed late Tuesday night. Eichkorn said he expected the highway to reopen by this morning's rush hour.

Both lanes will be open this morning. The repaving project has been suspended until next week.

Highway accidents

Two KDOT workers were killed in construction zone accidents in 2005. They were the first employees killed since November 1997.

Yong Bai, assistant professor in Kansas University's School of Engineering, said accidents in highway working zones are a serious problem, but rarely do they involve construction workers. According to a 2006 study Bai helped conduct for KDOT about work zone accidents, there were 15,434 work-zone crashes reported in Kansas and 39 percent, or 4,600 of them, involved injuries or fatalities between Jan. 1, 1992, and Dec. 31, 2004.

Most work-zone crashes occur in daylight and when there are no adverse weather conditions.

"Most of the time, we find that people just do not pay attention when they approach a work zone," Bai said.

That comes as no surprise to Mike Perkins, manager of operations at the Douglas County Public Works Department.

"Probably the biggest problem you see today is inattention," Perkins said. "Working on a highway is a dangerous job. It is a frightening experience."

Managing editor for convergence Joel Mathis contributed to this report.

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