EIGHTY-FOUR, Pa. – A tractor-trailer slammed into a van carrying mentally disabled people on a trip to the Pittsburgh Zoo, flipping it onto its side and crushing it against a building. Five people were killed and seven injured.
Witnesses told investigators the van stopped at an intersection and then pulled right in front of the tractor-trailer on a rural highway. Crews worked for several hours Thursday to remove all the bodies from the van.
The accident happened at about 9:45 a.m. in Somerset Township, about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh, just minutes after the van left a group home in Bentleyville.
"I just think it's one of those terrible, sad, freak accidents," said Lynne Loresch, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Washington County, the group home operator.
The van was carrying 11 people. Five of them were killed — three residents and two staff members. Six other residents inside were taken to area hospitals. The tractor-trailer driver also was treated and released from a hospital.
Authorities did not believe the tractor-trailer was speeding. State transportation officials hauled it from the scene and planned to inspect it. Authorities could not say what was in the tarp-covered, open-top trailer.
The tractor-trailer was owned by Stocker Trucking Co. in Gnadenhutten, Ohio, and driven by Stephen Rouse, 44, of Uhrichsville, Ohio. A man who answered the phone at Stocker Trucking declined to comment.
The van was pinned against a cinderblock storage building owned by a home gas- and oil-delivery business; a corner of the building partly collapsed.
The van was knocked onto its side and pushed roof-first into the building, causing the vehicle's roof to cave in, state police Trooper Frank Lewis said.
Two of the dead were removed by paramedics shortly after the accident, while the bodies of the driver and two residents had to be cut from the wreckage, Washington County Coroner Tim Warco said. By mid-afternoon, all five bodies were removed from the van.
Killed in the crash were: the driver, Sheryl Maiolini, 53, of Charleroi; staff member Mary Watkins, 43, of Ellsworth; and residents John Maise, 61, Richard Paquet, 43, and Julie Hugus, 41.
The injured residents included three men and three women who range in age from 48 to 58 years old.
Two of them had returned to the group home by late afternoon, Loresch said. The others were expected to survive and had injuries that included a broken clavicle, a broken hip, and head, neck and spinal injuries, Loresch said.
Loresch said the van was the second of two taking group home residents to the zoo. The first van arrived safely, but the group was told to return home, where they learned of the accident.
Loresch said the van that crashed was carrying residents from the facility's enhanced personal care home, which has a support staff and an open-door policy.
Most of the home's residents have schizophrenia or bipolar disorders. Some are there voluntarily, while others are transitioning from Mayview State Hospital, Loresch said.
Jeff Breen, of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's Washington County maintenance office, said state transportation officials were aware of safety concerns at the intersection where the crash happened — at Brownlee Road and Route 136. He said PennDOT had studied the intersection and planned an upgrade, though he wouldn't provide specifics.
Motorists on Brownlee Road, which travels north and south, must stop at the intersection of Route 136; motorists on Route 136, which travels east and west, do not have to stop.
"We will look at it again and see if we will move this project ahead of other projects," Breen said.
There have been 15 crashes and no fatalities at the intersection over the last five years, said Rich Kirkpatrick, a PennDOT spokesman.
Motorists coming northbound on Brownlee Road have a clear view of Route 136 traffic in both directions. Authorities had no immediate theories about why the van stopped and then pulled into the path of the truck.
Maiolini, the driver, was a five-year employee with a "superb" driving record, Loresch said.
Nancy Close, 56, has been living near the intersection for about 25 years. She didn't see Thursday's accident, but called the intersection dangerous, especially for drivers who don't know there's a stop sign on Brownlee Road.
"If you're unfamiliar, you don't see (the sign) because you have to pull out further because of the lay of the land," she said.
She added: "When my kids started driving, I told them never to take those roads."