A day after a fiery crash killed five people on Interstate 70 west of Bonner Springs, details emerged about the lives lost and the disastrously quick chain of events that led to the destruction.
An investigation into the wreck will likely stretch over months, centering on the spot near 174th Street where on Tuesday afternoon a tractor-trailer crested a hill behind traffic stopped in the westbound lanes, failed to stop in time and left skid marks behind where it slammed into the vehicles in its path.
Killed in the wreck were a chemistry professor at Washburn University, along with his wife; a 38-year-old Topeka man; and two women bound for Colorado.
Officials with the Kansas Turnpike Authority said Wednesday they could remember no single wreck that took so many lives.
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The six-vehicle pileup, a collision of tons of metal about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, started a fire that consumed parts of two tractor-trailers and a car.
On Wednesday, crews cleared the wreckage and turnpike officials pored over the scene to see if heat from the fire damaged the road.
Leavenworth County Attorney Todd Thompson said Wednesday an investigation will probably take four to six months to complete. He said investigators will look at the “black boxes” of the vehicles and interview various survivors, including the driver who was at the wheel of the truck that triggered the mayhem.
That truck was owned by a Colorado company, Indian Creek Express, that has a better-than-average record of complying with federal transportation rules, according to records.
The driver, 56-year-old Kenny B. Ford of Texas, had been fined three years ago in Missouri for operating a commercial vehicle without proper brakes.
Thompson called for patience as the investigation into the wreck goes on.
“Life is short,” he said, “and you’ve got to appreciate the moments you have.”
Earlier Wednesday, the Turnpike Authority released a report detailing the accident and named the victims.
Among them were Sheldon H. Cohen, 83, professor emeritus of chemistry at Washburn University, and his wife, 79-year-old Virginia Cohen, who was a passenger in the 2012 Buick LaCrosse driven by Sheldon Cohen. The couple were from Topeka.
Another Topeka resident, 38-year-old Ricardo Mireles, who was killed driving a 2005 Ford Taurus.
The other victims were Teresa J. Butler, 61, of Urbana, Ill., who was driving a 2015 GMC Terrain, and Karen Lynn Kennedy, 63, of New Palestine, Ind.
The crash sequence was laid out in the Turnpike Authority’s report:
Two vehicles heading west were stopped in the outside lane of traffic because of construction about 2 miles down the interstate.
The left lane had been closed temporarily for that construction, causing a bottleneck that backed up traffic for about a mile.
Three other vehicles were slowing down and preparing to stop in the same lane when the truck driver, Ford, came up behind them and “crested a slight hill,” according to the report.
He “perceived the other traffic late” and began to brake before striking the rear of the Terrain driven by Butler.
The impact spun her vehicle toward the inside retaining wall. The truck then slammed the Cohens’ Buick, which was pushed into a guardrail and ended up in a grassy ditch.
The truck then hit the Taurus driven by Mireles. His car was forced underneath another tractor-trailer driven by a 53-year-old North Carolina man.
The second truck then hit the rear of another SUV.
A fire erupted, engulfing the two trucks and the Ford Taurus.
Maranda Ballou, a 22-year-old woman from Edwardsville, said she was driving home from work at a restaurant when she saw the aftermath of the wreck as she drove by on the highway headed east.
When she saw workers moving the remains of a tractor-trailer she burst into tears, assuming that no one could have survived the crash, she said. The wreckage, she said, was “a miserable scene to look at.”
The drivers of the second truck and the last SUV involved in the crash were not injured.
It’s unclear whether Ford, the driver of the first truck that failed to stop in time, was injured.
Missouri Highway Patrol officers have cited Ford for at least two commercial vehicle violations in the past seven years. In 2014, he pleaded guilty in Lafayette County to operating a commercial vehicle without proper brakes, a Class B misdemeanor, and received a $130 fine.
Commercial truckers are required by law to perform a thorough safety inspection on their tractors and trailers before every trip. Brake problems are among the safety issues they’re required to check for.
In 2010, the driver pleaded guilty in Cass County to failing to properly register a commercial vehicle in Missouri. His fine in that case also was $130.
On Wednesday, family members grieved those lost in the wreck.
Butler and Kennedy were on their way to the Colorado mountains, likely headed toward Estes Park, Colo., said Butler’s brother, Damian Butler. She loved the Rockies and often vacationed there.
Butler earned her vacations from her job in the business office of the emergency room at the Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, Ill., where she worked 39 years, her brother said.
“She was a workaholic,” he said.
Kennedy, who was traveling with Butler, also worked at Carle Foundation Hospital, a co-worker said. She was a nurse practitioner in the neonatal unit.
Sheldon Cohen was a member of the Washburn University faculty, where he taught chemistry from 1960 until 1999. He served as provost and academic vice president from 1982 to 1984. After his retirement, Cohen taught as an adjunct professor.
Sheldon and Virginia Cohen established a scholarship for biology and chemistry students at the university.
Jerry Farley, president of the university, said in a statement that Cohen “left a lasting legacy at Washburn.”
Gerald Cohen, Sheldon and Virginia Cohen’s son, said he had been on vacation in Florida with his family when the Kansas Highway Patrol called to tell him about his parents’ death. He flew back to Kansas and was awaiting more of his family members’ arrival there Wednesday afternoon.
Gerald Cohen’s voice broke as he talked of his parents.
“They’ll be dearly missed.”