ELIZABETHTOWN, Ky. – Kentucky State Police were investigating whether distracted driving caused a tractor-trailer to plow into an SUV carrying eight people on Saturday, killing six and possibly triggering a serious crash on the opposite side of the highway.
The truck driver is "telling us that he saw the vehicle that was in front of him and he hit the brakes and he didn't hit them in time," Master Trooper Norman Chaffins said. " ... There was a reason for that and we're trying to figure out what the reason was."
The late-morning crash was followed 15 minutes later by a multi-vehicle crash on the opposite side of Interstate 65 that injured three people. The site was just 15 miles from where 11 people died in 2010 when a tractor-trailer crossed the median and hit a van carrying a Mennonite family. Ten people in the van were killed along with the truck driver and the National Transportation Safety Board determined the truck driver was distracted by his cell phone.
Chaffins said despite snow flurries, weather was not a factor in Saturday's crashes. He said police were also looking into the truck driver's logs and had taken blood tests.
The six killed were identified as members of an extended family from Marion, Wis.
They were identified as James Gollnow, 62, and his wife, Barbara Gollnow, 62; Marion Champnise, 92, a friend; Sarina Gollnow, 18, relationship unknown; and foster children Gabriel Zumig, 10, and Soledad Smith, 8.
The two survivors were also foster children. Police identified them as Hope Hoth, 15, who was transported to a hospital in Lexington with burns and a broken spine; and Aidian Ejnik, 12, who was taken to Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville with cuts to the back of his head.
Chaffins described both of the children's injuries as non-life-threatening.
The two crashes shut down the busy stretch of highway for about five hours. The first happened at 11:13 a.m. EST on northbound I-65 south of Elizabethtown. In the second crash, four vehicles collided at the same location on the southbound side.
Chaffins said in the first crash, a 1999 Ford Expedition was hit from behind and then hit the car in front of it, but the driver of that vehicle had only minor injuries. He did not know where the Expedition was headed.
The Expedition was "totally engulfed in flames. It was totally destroyed by the fire," he said, adding, "It's just a charred mess."
He said one eyewitness told police two people emerged from the blaze and one appeared to be on fire.
The driver of the tractor-trailer was not injured and was cooperating with police, Chaffins said. "He's obviously pretty torn up about everything."
The southbound crash involved a tractor-trailor and three other vehicles. Police were investigating whether rubbernecking was the cause.
"That's what we're suspecting, that people were looking at the crash that happened on the other side and became distracted and caused a chain-reaction crash," he said.
Those injured in the second crash were taken to hospitals but were not identified.