Man hailed for actions in deadly 422 crash
PINE TOWNSHIP — Already injured when an out-of-control coal truck collided with his vehicle Tuesday morning near Strongstown, a Cambria County man climbed from the wreckage and helped to pull the driver from the coal truck as it was engulfed in fire.
State police credited George Banfield with just one in a sequence of events that prevented a deadly, three-vehicle wreck from becoming even more tragic.
A Kittanning man was killed and five people were hospitalized after the accident that began about 7:20 a.m. on Route 422 near a small private road called Motorcycle Lane.
As troopers at Indiana explained it, James Norris lost control of a westbound Toyota Rav 4 and drifted across the centerline, where his SUV hit an eastbound tri-axle coal truck driven by Ronald Robinson, of Rochester Mills.
Norris, 67, died in the crash, and three passengers in his SUV were critically injured, according to state police.
The coal truck, meanwhile, caught on fire and hurtled a hundred yards or so down the road before hitting a westbound Chevrolet Suburban driven by Banfield, of Revloc.
Banfield’s vehicle came to a halt on the road but the coal truck drifted off the north side of Route 422 into the front yard of a residence along the highway, tipped over and spilled its load of coal.
“The coal truck came to a final rest about 15 yards from the front of the house,” said Trooper John Matchik, a public information officer at the Indiana station. “The coal bucket was on fire, and generating such intense heat that the vinyl siding on the dwelling started to melt. And there were three people inside, a woman and her two children.”
But had Banfield’s vehicle been just a short distance farther on the road, the coal truck would have been at risk of directly hitting the house, Matchik said.
“When you look at a situation like this, you would think we could have had more people seriously injured,” Matchik said. “It’s tragic enough to have one fatality. What would have happened if that driver hadn’t been helped out of his truck?”
In their news release, state police didn’t report what may have caused Norris to lose control of his SUV.
Emergency dispatchers sent the Pine Township and Cherryhill Township fire departments to extinguish the burning truck and to help free the injured people trapped in the van.
The passengers — Amy Vause, 29; Shawn Vause, 30; and Susan Norris, 56, all of Kittanning — were sent on helicopters and by ambulance to Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown, where a spokeswoman said all remained in critical condition this morning.
A dog riding in the SUV was left alone when the people in the vehicle were removed, officials said, but emergency responders sent it to the Ebensburg Animal Hospital for care and safekeeping.
State police reported Banfield, 38, and Robinson, 51, suffered moderate injuries. Both were transported to Memorial, but hospital records this morning showed no information about them, the spokeswoman said.
Authorities noted the recent dry weather and a lack of drain culverts in the area of the crash. Diesel fuel leaked from the truck over more than 70 yards of the highway, but Indiana County hazardous-materials handlers cleaned it up before it caused any environmental threat, said Tom Stutzman of the county Emergency Management Agency.
The work to clean up the highway, to remove the spilled coal, to upright the overturned coal truck, to remove all the wrecked vehicles and the investigation by state police accident analysts and a records team kept the highway closed to traffic until 3:40 p.m., according to Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
Emergency response agencies from Cambria and Indiana counties alike were pressed into service. Citizens Ambulance Service and Blacklick Valley paramedics treated the injured at the scene. The Vintondale fire department was called early on to mark the landing area for medical helicopters, and the Nanty Glo department was called later to help control traffic.
The Indiana County Coroner’s Office investigated Norris’ death but has released no information.