New Jersey police are investigating whether alcohol use explains how a car carrying three off-duty police officers on their way back from a strip club drove the wrong way down a New York highway and crashed head-on into a truck, killing one officer and a civilian and critically injuring two other policemen.
Hours prior to the deadly crash, the officer driving the car posted a photo on his Instagram page of three shot glasses filled with “Jack Daniels Fire on the house.”
"We were all young once and I'm sure we've all done stupid things in our life," said Linden Police Chief James Schulhafer. "But that being said, because this is an ongoing investigation, it would be way too premature to speculate on what caused this accident."
The dead were identified as 28-year-old Linden Officer Frank Viggiano and 28-year-old Joe Rodriguez, a former county employee. Both were passengers in the car.
Pedro Abad, the 27-year-old driver, and Patrik Kudlac, the 23-year-old passenger were in critical condition at hospitals on Staten Island. Both have severe and extensive injuries and are fighting for their lives, police said.
Investigators have applied for a warrant to test Abad’s blood-alcohol level, the New York Police Department said. The truck drivers suffered injuries that were non-life threatening.
Footage taken by a camera at a gas station shows a car driving the wrong way on a service road minutes before the crash. S southbound exit ramp leads from the highway onto the service road. The time stamp on the video shows 4:48 a.m. and police received a 911 call of the accident at 4:51 a.m.
One tractor-trailer swerved out of the way to avoid the car, but the second one could not get out of the way in time.
"At this point our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of Officer Frank Viggiano," he said, describing him as well-liked by everybody. "This is an unspeakable tragedy."
Rodriguez's father, Angelo, called his son "my pal" in an interview with The Associated Press at the family's home in Linden. He said they planned to go trout fishing in two weeks.
He described his son as well-spoken, well-mannered and always willing to help people. He said his son loved basketball and fishing and had lots of friends.
Rodriguez didn't seem angry at the driver, saying that "it doesn't matter if the driver was drinking because accidents happen." At times, he broke into tears.
"I'm still in shock," he said. "He ain't coming home no more."
Joe's uncle, Joseph Simone, described him as family-oriented.
"He was too young," Simone said. "He was too young. I was with him yesterday and he's gone today."
Abad posted a photo on his social media account of the drinks with a caption of the toast he had given.
"The 3 of us, are decent people. There's a decent woman out there for each of us. Sure it's cool to be single every now and then, but I don't give a damn what ANYONE says. At the end of the day, I want a family. I want to settle down. We all do. So here's to finding that which we all hope for."
In his 37 years working for the department, Sarnicki said, he couldn't remember any officers being killed in the blue-collar refinery town of 41,000 residents just across the water from Staten Island.
"People are in a somber mood. I could see some officers with tears in their eyes. It is an emotional day for all of us. Like I said, we are a family and we're all hurt by this," he said. "It's tragic for people to lose their lives at such an early age, whatever the reason."
The Associated Press contributed to this report