HERKIMER, N.Y. – A former player for the Pittsburgh Steelers (search) led troopers on a 40-mile high-speed Thursday before driving into oncoming traffic and dying in a fiery head-on collision with a tanker truck.
State police identified the dead motorist as Justin Strzelczyk (search), 36, an offensive lineman with the Steelers for nearly a decade until the team released him in 2000. The tanker truck driver was treated for minor injuries and released, but no one else was hurt, police said.
Troopers said Strzelczyk was traveling at nearly 90 mph before the rush-hour collision on the New York State Thruway (search) in upstate New York. He was ejected from his pickup truck and both vehicles burst into flames.
"It could have been so much worse. We're fortunate that only one person died," said Trooper Jim Simpson, a state police spokesman. "It looked like an airplane crash. The pickup was almost unrecognizable."
State police said they put out an alert for Strzelczyk's pickup Thursday morning, after it was involved in a minor hit-and-run accident just west of Syracuse. Police spotted him about 40 minutes later, headed east on the thruway about midway between Syracuse and Utica.
Strzelczyk drove 15 miles on three tires after one of his tires was punctured by metal spikes thrown into the road by troopers, police said.
A second unit tried to stop the pickup by booby-trapping the road with the "stop sticks," but Strzelczyk just kept on going, Simpson said. The pickup was clocked at 88 mph, Simpson said.
"He was going down the road, flipping off the troopers. He even threw a beer bottle at them," Simpson said.
Police said a trucker whom they were unable to identify Thursday tried to help them by pulling his rig across the road. Instead of stopping, the pickup drove across the grass median into the westbound lanes and traveled about three miles in the wrong direction before the deadly crash.
The pickup collided with the tanker truck near Herkimer about 8:15 a.m., while the highway was busy with morning commuters. The tanker was carrying no cargo.
The crash closed westbound lanes of the thruway for 10 hours, and eastbound lanes for five hours.
Commenting on the actions of the "good Samaritan" trucker, State Police Capt. Donald Faughnan said, "It's always a judgment call. Sometimes the actions work out, sometimes they don't. We prefer civilians not get involved unless we ask them to. But maybe [the trucker] helped prevent something worse."
Troopers said they were unsure why Strzelczyk fled.
Strzelczyk, who grew up in the Buffalo suburb of West Seneca and played for the University of Maine, spent nine years with the Steelers and played in the 1995 Super Bowl.
Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said the team will miss Strzelczyk.
"He was a free spirit," Steelers running back Jerome Bettis said. "He was a little different in the way he did things, but that was him. ... He was a great guy. It's a tragedy what happened."
Nine months after his release by the Steelers, Strzelczyk was arraigned for illegal possession of a gun. Police said he slammed a loaded handgun onto a bar in Pittsburgh when discussing the presidential election with a friend.