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'Lucky to be alive' after I-95 accident

When his car stopped spinning, 22-year-old Peter Driscoll unfastened his seat belt and, in a state of confusion and shock, stepped out onto the southbound side of Interstate 95.

“It took a few seconds to figure out what was going on,” said Driscoll, then a Coast Guard Academy cadet and now an ensign. “There was debris all over the highway.”

He didn’t know at the time that a tractor-trailer had just barreled into his car and two other vehicles or that three people would later die of their injuries despite the efforts of emergency responders.

The crash occurred shortly before 7 p.m. last Oct. 12 just south of Exit 81 in Waterford. It was one of a series of three accidents on the highway that would claim four lives that day. Three people, including a young brother and sister, died in the vehicle behind Driscoll’s.

Driscoll and his passenger, fellow cadet Bradley Brown, were treated for bumps and bruises.

Tractor-trailers were involved in two of the fatal crashes. Each had struck multiple vehicles that had been stopped for traffic, according to preliminary state police reports.

Ten months after the crash, state police have yet to release accident reports from the crashes. No charges have been levied against any of the drivers. The Day has a pending Freedom of Information request on file for the reports on the cause of the crashes.

The first crash occurred about 4:23 p.m., when a tour bus from Syosset, N.Y., failed to stop in heavy traffic, causing a chain-reaction collision involving four vehicles on I-95 south in the vicinity of the East Lyme-Old Lyme line, around Exit 71. Fifteen people were treated for minor injuries.

At 7 p.m. Driscoll was on his way from the Coast Guard Academy in New London to the Black Sheep restaurant in Niantic. He was caught in traffic apparently still backed up from the earlier crash.

“There was a line of traffic. We were at a standstill. My lane had come to a dead stop,” Driscoll said in an interview in March. “My passenger, Brad Brown, turned to me and said, ‘Oh, this must be from the accident I saw earlier.’ That was the last thing that happened. The truck came out of nowhere.”

State police said the tractor-trailer, driven by Gerard S. Dube, 59, of Swansea, Mass., and registered to Gold Medal Bakery, struck three slowed or stopped vehicles.

The first vehicle rear-ended was a Nissan Sentra driven by Baughnita Leary, 25, of Meriden. Her passengers included her two children, Sanaa Reynolds, 9, and Dacari Robinson, 3; and Darin Robinson, 26, Leary’s boyfriend and Dacari’s father.

Leary was the lone survivor in the car and is emotionally scarred from losing her children and fiancé, according to Leary’s aunt, Gwen Samuel. Leary is among family members filing suit against Dube and Gold Medal Bakery for wrongful death in connection with the crash.

“She lost her whole family,” Samuel said. “How are you supposed to come back from that?”

Samuel said Leary’s kids’ rooms are exactly the same as they were before the crash, “like a shrine.”

Driscoll’s Toyota Scion was the second of three vehicles struck by the tractor-trailer.

Driscoll said he and Brown were among others who attempted to help the passengers in the Sentra, which sustained the most severe damage.

He recalled a group of five or six people surrounding the car. The passenger was slumped over with his head in the lap of the driver.

“Their trunk had been bashed in all the way to the back seat of the car,” Driscoll said.

“There was a baby seat in the back seat, an infant seat that normally would sit horizontal that was pushed vertical into the back of the driver’s seat. That looked like a very bad situation. The hood was messed up as well. It was a mess.

“It was just really scary throughout all of it,” he said, adding that people were yanking at the doors and trying without success to get at the passengers.

“They were wedged shut. I remember some guy, before EMS showing up, taking a fire extinguisher and trying to bash in the window on the driver’s side, trying to get at the driver. I think they had more success opening the passenger door. A group was trying to yell to the driver. Only the driver was conscious.

“I don’t know about fate or anything, but Brad and I were lucky to walk away alive. Looking back, if we’d been in any other car it would have been a lot worse. The height of the car helped absorb some of the impact. We were just very, very lucky to walk away from an accident (in which) three people died.”

Driscoll said an awkward feeling of nervousness struck him the first few times he drove by the scene, something akin to a panic attack.

“I find myself getting very nervous if I have to pull in front of an 18-wheeler. Being rear-ended by an 18-wheeler is a very scary moment, and it stays with you for a while,” he said.

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