Tragedy struck a young couple as they drove toward Independence on Monday evening following a date night that included an intimate dinner on the Country Club Plaza.
Laura Bass had her head resting on Nicholas Melvin’s sturdy shoulder as the car passed the Truman Sports Complex about 7:30 p.m. on eastbound Interstate 70.
Seconds later, as the couple chatted, a tire spun off a vehicle headed the other way. It bounced over the concrete median barrier and crashed through their windshield.
Bass felt her 23-year-old boyfriend squeeze her closer, to protect her.
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The tire hit Melvin, a 2010 Lee’s Summit High School graduate who had moved to Independence, in the head before landing in Bass’s lap. The blow — a deadly one — knocked Melvin unconscious.
His 20-year-old girlfriend grabbed the steering wheel as Melvin’s foot continued to press the accelerator.
She steered them off the interstate and up to a row of trees. After pushing the tire from her lap, she tried to stabilize Melvin and stop his bleeding until emergency crews arrived.
He died Tuesday evening at a hospital.
“He was amazing. He was everybody’s rock,” his mother, Kristen Melvin, said Wednesday. “He was loved by a ton of people and was an amazing, optimistic man.”
Investigators determined that the tire, still on its rim, had rolled off a westbound trailer with dual wheels on both sides.
Investigators did not have a detailed description of the trailer or the vehicle towing it. They are looking for witnesses.
It is likely the driver towing the trailer did not realize the tire flew off. The driver probably continued west on I-70, said Sgt. Bill Mahoney, a supervisor with the Kansas City Police Department’s accident investigation section.
There were no drag markings or skid marks on the highway to indicate that an axle dragged on the pavement after losing the wheel, he said.
The tire hit two vehicles in the eastbound lanes about 100 yards east of Blue Ridge Cutoff. The other driver was not injured, police said.
“We’re just scratching together the evidence that we are looking at,” Mahoney said.
Anyone with information about the accident is asked to call the TIPS Hotline at 816-474-TIPS (8477).
In a message she posted Wednesday on Facebook to her boyfriend, Bass said, “You saved my life you are my hero.”
She mentioned being there for his last breath.
“I wasn’t ready for you to leave me and I still need you,” she wrote. “... I know you’re in a better place now and you have so many people that love and care for you. And I’m so happy that your last day on earth you were so happy.”
Melvin sold subscriptions to DirecTV at the Costco store in Independence, his mother said. He also worked as a prep cook for Summit Grill & Bar in Lee’s Summit.
Melvin enjoyed playing soccer and riding his skateboard, his mother said.
He learned to walk and talk early and even learned to play chess when he was 2 years old, she said.
“He loved snakes and spiders and would get them out of the house for me,” Kristen Melvin said. “He loved nature and being outside.”
Melvin was the oldest of three children. He leaves a 21-year-old brother and an 8-year-old sister.
The family has set up a GoFundme page to help cover Melvin’s medical and funeral expenses.
“He is not gone,” Kristen Melvin said. “His body is gone, but his spirit is still around us.”
The fatal incident Monday happened nearly 14 years after roadway debris struck and killed a driver on I-70 in Independence.
In that August 2001 incident, a 37-pound metal plate fell off a truck bed onto the roadway, where another vehicle later hit it and kicked it up into the air. It smashed through Patricia Walker’s windshield and hit the 25-year-old Odessa woman in the face before flying out her rear windshield. She died less than two hours later at an Independence hospital.
Investigators determined that the scrap metal once had been a railway crossing counterweight. That helped them track down the truck driver who had been hauling it. After originally being charged with involuntary manslaughter, William Copeland of Kansas City, Kan., eventually pleaded to a misdemeanor for failing to secure his load. A judge sentenced him to 120 hours of community service.