Eyewitnesses tell story of fatal crash

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:51

    BLOOMING GROVE- Eric Serviss was driving through Blooming Grove on Route 17 with his partner, John Grimaldi, on Friday, on their way to see a client in New York. "We were talking when a kind of explosion of dirt happened in front of us," said Grimaldi, a partner with Serviss in the 8 Hats High Animation and Production company in Middletown. A van had inexplicably crossed the median, colliding with a tractor-trailer two or three cars ahead of them. All of a sudden, Serviss said, the tractor-trailer cut a hard left, probably to avoid hitting the oncoming van. The truck appeared to be "grinding the guardrail" on the westbound side of the highway, Grimaldi said. Just as the westbound van had ended up in the eastbound lanes, the eastbound tractor-trailer had crossed into the westbound lanes. Grimaldi called 911 while Serviss approached the van. Serviss was stunned by what he saw. "I knew that the position of his body definitely was not right for a living, breathing human being," he said. The driver's side door was gone. He didn't see the two passengers. The driver of the van was 34-year-old Abraham Weisz of Brooklyn. His passengers were a young married couple, Zev and Faigy Tietielbaum, ages 23 and 20. Grimaldi remembers the driver of the tractor-trailer, which was hauling junked cars. "He came out of the truck pretty fast and then sat at the side of the road," he said. "He looked in shock." Weisz and the Tietielbaums were Hasidic Jews, members of the Orthodox Satmar community in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. "People were getting ready to help," Serviss said. "I saw a couple of Orthodox guys and a couple of other young guys out on the road. I remember thinking since I had a red shirt on, I should direct traffic." But then they heard sirens and knew help was on the way. They realized there wasn't anything they could do. Serviss said he wanted to leave. "We couldn't stay there with this corpse in front of us," he said. First responders on the scene were struck by the presence of baby materials — diapers, pacifiers, and toys — in the van, said Rich Lenahan, captain of Monroe Volunteer Ambulance. They thought a baby may have been in there, so they began to search for one, and dropped ropes over the embankments. But no baby was found. "There is a void in the community with search and rescue, so we got qualified by the Department of Environmental Conservation victim wilderness search and rescue," Lenahan said. "In this part of the county, we were the only ones." ‘A very unique accident' That each vehicle ended up on the opposite side of the highway caused an extraordinary delay in clearing the accident. Route 17 was closed in both directions for nearly five hours, backing up traffic not only on the highway itself but on all connecting local roads, reaching far into Monroe, Chester, and beyond. Some news reports had traffic backed up all the way to Manhattan. "It was a very unique accident," said Captain Steve Nevins of State Police Troop F. "It was absolutely one of the worst bad scenarios, except it wasn't snowing." Police and other emergency personnel had to do a time-consuming reconstruction of the scene. This process requires responders to get to the site from as many as four to five locations throughout the county, then re-positioning the vehicles and analyzing what happened. Some of the analysis is done with a laser measuring device to pinpoint the positions of the vehicles, landmarks, and skid marks. Van Der Molen said they've come to "no conclusions" yet about what caused the accident. Responders also needed to attend to the potential danger of hazardous material spilling onto the road. Both sides of the highway needed to be cleaned up, along with the tractor-trailer lodged in the trees on the westbound side. Captain Nevins said the tow operators, from Loyal Towing in Harriman, "did a tremendous job, just a terrific job." Also on the scene were members of the Haisidic community, who needed to perform certain religious rituals on the scene. This had nothing to do with the delay, according to the state police. "There are some things they needed to do with rituals," Nevins said. "They actually finished with their ritual or ceremonial work before our own work was done. They were clearly done before our work." State Troop F Senior Investigator John Van Der Molen said the accident is still under investigation. It can take a week or more to get results, he said on Monday. "To be honest with you, I don't think we will ever know [the cause]," Nevins said. "It could be any of a hundred reasons. We don't get to interview the operator." Other local responders included Chester Fire Department's three firehouses (Walton Engine and Hose, Sugar Loaf Engine Company and Troutbrook Engine and Hose), South Blooming Grove Fire Department, and ambulance corps from Kiryas Joel, Chester, Blooming Grove, Warwick and Mobile Life. The driver of the tractor-trailer, Eric Delgado, 41, was treated and released for minor injuries at Orange Regional Medical Center's Arden Hill hospital. Town of Monroe Supervisor Sandy Leonard said on Tuesday, "My heart goes out to the family. I hope the investigation will show the cause of the accident." "I think it became crystal clear on Friday that it is not just Monroe traffic that is overburdening our town roads," she continued. The Friday traffic snarl "highlights it's a regional problem that needs a regional solution and we have been working on that." Captain Nevin said he would tell motorists angry about the delay: "Be grateful you were not on the scene, and that you got home safe that night."