Initial reports coming from the scene of the July 7 catastrophic collision on West 12th Street defied comprehension.
A westbound sport utility vehicle, possibly traveling more than 90 mph, wove in and out of traffic and ran a red light before slamming into a northbound truck trailer that was crossing West 12th Street at Cherry Street, police said.
The impact tore the roof off the Hyundai Sante Fe, nearly severed the trailer and killed the three men aboard. The debris field stretched halfway to Poplar Street, larger than a football field.
Police said there was no sign the operator had braked. Seasoned investigators trying to convey the scale of the damage resorted to comparisons with plane and train disasters.
Then we learned that those in the Hyundai were not who might be expected — young people, possibly intoxicated, — but retired, churchgoing grandfathers who died in a crash caused by what police believe was either a medical or mechanical issue.
Finally on Tuesday, came the most painful detail, the veering path of travel described by witnesses, in an investigator’s estimation, appeared to be deliberate and heroic.
Sgt. Jeff Annunziata said based on his probe, including review of video footage, the 2009 Sante Fe — a model subject to consumer complaints about accelerators that stick — was likely having mechanical problems. The driver, 65-year-old Oscar Johnson, steered the vehicle straight along West 12th Street, and then successfully avoided striking at least two other occupied vehicles at the intersection with Cherry Street before colliding with the truck trailer that was northbound on Cherry. Johnson and his friends, Willie M. Byrd, 72, and Charles Barnes, 65, lost their own lives as a result.
“He really did a heroic thing doing what he did,” Annunziata said.
The crash remains under investigation. It might be a long while — possibly never — until authorities know exactly what happened, given the extent of the damage. But the probe thus far suggests that other people, perhaps several, could have been badly hurt or killed, but for Johnson’s driving.
That fits with how the men are being remembered. Johnson, a retired Penelec meter reader, was an usher, and Byrd, a deacon, at House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church. Barnes, a General Electric retiree, was a member of St. Paul Baptist Church and remembered in his obituary as a kind, attentive father and grandfather. Their deaths are, as the Rev. Michael Coles, pastor of the House of Prayer, said, “devastating.”
Grieving loved ones and the community at large will likely want to know if the men’s deaths were due to a mechanical defect and avoidable. That is an important question. Motor vehicles, subject to safety standards, are meant to transport, not kill. Hopefully, such answers and, if fitting, justice, will be forthcoming.