State trooper Timothy Bentley has been to hundreds of crash scenes in his 16 years on the job, but none as bad as the one he responded to on Nov. 2, 2007.
A northbound tanker truck carrying some 7,000 gallons of heating fuel had careened out of control and jumped across the highway near the intersection of Interstates 95 and 395 in East Lyme, ramming into a southbound tractor-trailer and causing a pileup.
"This was the worst accident I had ever responded to," Bentley, a trooper first class assigned to the Troop E barracks in Montville, testified Tuesday on the first day of a civil trial in Hartford Superior Court.
"It reminded me of a training video you watched in the police academy," he testified. "It had everything. Hazmat (hazardous materials), multiple vehicles and multiple fatalities, and it was on a highway."
Three crash survivors and the estates of Lu-Ann Dugas of East Lyme and Fred Held of Milford have brought recklessness, negligence and wrongful death claims against Northeast Carriers, the Brooklyn-based owner of the tanker truck. The case is being heard in Hartford as part of the complex litigation docket.
Three of the plaintiffs, truck driver James J. Clark of Patchogue, N.Y., and school teachers Lynn Mariani of Stonington and Samira Clough of Mystic, sat together in the front row of the gallery, wincing, sniffling and patting one another on the back as they heard the details of the day that changed their lives.
The sixth plaintiff is the company that owned the truck Clark was driving. South Bay Trucking and the Lancer Insurance Co. is seeking $50,000 for damages to the truck.
Bentley, dispatched to the crash scene at 10:19 a.m. while driving on I-395, was the first responder on the scene. He said traffic was at a dead stop as southbound cars attempted to get off Exit 75. The tanker was across the road with liquid spewing out of it in several places. He initially thought it was gasoline and backed up his cruiser. Eventually, he and other first responders determined the tanker had been carrying diesel fuel, which is less volatile. Another trooper and an East Lyme ambulance arrived, and they all approached the scene to see if they could help anyone.
To the right of the tanker was a Honda Accord with a male occupant — Fred Held — who looked ashen in color and was deceased, Bentley testified. Dugas was in the driver's seat of her blue Mercury with her hands on the steering wheel.
"From what I saw, she was crushed by the roof of her car," he testified.
Clark, whose tractor and trailer separated after being struck by the tanker, was trying to get out of the tractor, Bentley said.
"It looked like he had been through a war," the trooper testified. "His clothes were tattered, and he was in a state of shock. Me and two other troopers got him out of his truck and across the highway to a point of safety."
Mariani and Clough were out of their car and were on the grass on the side of the highway, he said.
"We looked into the mangled (tanker) tractor," Bentley testified. "There was nobody we could help."
The tanker driver, Peter Derry of Webster, Mass., died at the scene.
Another driver, John Hampton of Old Lyme, was "walking around dazed," Bentley said. He refused medical treatment, Bentley said.
Bentley went on to describe guardrails that had been gouged by the tanker's lug nuts and the diesel fuel that was pooling inside the cement median that had been knocked to the ground on impact.
'This was catastrophic'
In their opening statements, attorneys for the plaintiffs prepared the six jurors and two alternates for the horrific details they were about to reveal.
"This is sort of an extraordinary case," New Haven attorney Carl A. Secola Jr., who represents Held's estate, told the panel. "You're not sitting on just any fender-bender (case). This looked more like a plane crash. This was catastrophic. The entire highway was closed down in both directions."
New London attorney Matthew Shafner, representing Dugas' estate, said Dugas, a senior teller at the Charter Oak Federal Credit Union in East Lyme, was in the southbound lane heading back to work from a doctor's appointment when she was killed. He said the head of human resources from the credit union will testify that Dugas would have earned $800,000 to $900,000 if she continued working until she was 65 or 70. He said her husband and son will not be attending the trial because it is too painful.
Groton attorney Peter Bartinik Sr., representing Lynn Mariani, said his client was lucky to have survived the crash. Her injuries were not severe, but she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, he said. Mariani and Clough, who taught together in the Groton school system, were driving to a teachers' workshop in Cromwell.
Clough's attorney, Dina S. Fisher of Hartford, said her client suffered multiple injuries, including a broken back, nose, foot and knee, and that she had to retire early from the teaching job she loved. Clough was wearing a sling Tuesday.
New London attorney Shelley L. Graves, representing Clark, said he is unable to drive a truck and fulfill his goal of buying his own big rig. He was driving south in the left lane when the tanker jumped the median and slammed into his truck, separating the tractor from the trailer. He suffered multiple blunt traumatic injuries, incurred medical bills of $270,000 and is in chronic pain, Graves said. He was 27 when the crash occurred.
The plaintiffs had also sued Geiway Expedited, the Philadelphia company that owned a tractor-trailer driven by James F. Holloway. Though Holloway's truck was not involved in the crash, the plaintiffs claimed that he and tanker driver Derry had been racing one another and driving in tandem at high speeds in the moments before the crash. Witnesses also said Derry had been weaving in and out of traffic.
The plaintiffs settled with Geiway during jury selection for an undisclosed sum. Holloway, the driver, is expected to testify at the trial.
Attorney Peter Daly of Springfield, N.J., representing Northeast Carriers, asked the jury to allocate some of the fault for the accident to Holloway. He said there is no dispute that it was a horrible and tragic accident that resulted from Derry going across the median.
"What we don't know, what we may never know, is why Mr. Derry went across that median," he said.
The trial is expected to last three to four weeks. The lawyers are expected to call on additional first responders, an accident reconstruction expert, medical professionals who treated the victims and eyewitnesses to the accident.