[Detroit] Redford Twp. girl among five killed in Toledo head-on crash

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Master of Puppets
Mar 3, 2004
Oklahoma City, OK
Monday, December 31, 2007
Redford Twp. girl among five killed in Toledo head-on crash
Robert Snell, Mike Wilkinson and Tom Greenwood / The Detroit News

TOLEDO --For families in Michigan and Maryland, they may become the minutes that haunt.

It took just a half-dozen minutes: From the dutiful fast-food worker alerting police to a drunken driver, to the policeman who just missed him, to the frantic calls from motorists alerting authorities to the impending tragedy.

"A truck came at us, going the wrong way on the highway," a woman told a suburban Toledo police dispatcher shortly before midnight Sunday, according to a tape of the conversation obtained by The Detroit News.

"That's not good," the dispatcher responded.

A few minutes and less than 4 miles later, the driver, a 24-year-old from Michigan who police say was drunk, plowed into a Chevrolet Astro minivan along Interstate 280 in Toledo, killing a young mother and four children and injuring her husband and two children.

According to the Lucas County Coroner's office, killed at the scene were Bethany Griffin, 36, her children Lacie Burkman, 7, Haley Burkman, 10, 2-month-old, Vadi Griffin, all of Parkville, Md., and her stepdaughter Jordan Griffin, 10, of Redford Township.

Survivors include their father, Danny Griffin, 36, his step-child Beau Burkman, 8, and his daughter from a previous marriage, Sydney Griffin, 8, of Redford. St. Vincent's reports that Sydney is in serious condition while Danny Griffin and Beau Burkman remain in stable condition.

Police identified the driver of the pickup as 24-year-old Michael Gagnon of Adrian. Gagnon survived the crash and is reportedly being treated at the same hospital as the victims. Police have said they intend to charge Gagnon with multiple counts of vehicular homicide.

The crash occurred when a Ford F-350 pickup truck driving the wrong way on the freeway struck the van carrying eight people. According to reports, the crash near Manhattan Boulevard was so horrific that it sheared the minivan in two along its right side.

The 911 tapes chronicle a desperate attempt by police to catch Gagnon after he was spotted by a Taco Bell worker in the small community of Oregon, Ohio. The worker, noticing Gagnon appeared intoxicated, phoned police.

"I work at Taco Bell and there this guy. He's drunk ..." said an employee identified as Jacob. "We've got him stopped in our drive-through right now and I just wondered if you could send someone over to stop him or pick him up."

The call came at 10:45 p.m. and recordings of police dispatch activity showed Oregon police responded immediately.

"We're sending somebody over there right now," a male dispatcher said.

Four minutes later, it appeared Gagnon had eluded police.

"I'm sure I passed him," one officer responded.

Then, in two similar calls, motorists on Interstate 280 reported Gagnon's wrong-way path.

By now, as Gagnon sped the short few miles out of Oregon and into Toledo, an Oregon dispatcher alerted Toledo police.

"He was drunk over at Taco Bell," she said. "We couldn't catch him."

According to police reports, the Griffin family was returning to their home in Parkville, Md., after visiting relatives in Michigan. Police said the tragedy began when Gagnon left a bar in Oregon, Ohio -- identified by some reports as the Rodeo Bar -- and headed to a nearby Taco Bell.

Restaurant personnel notified police that an intoxicated driver was on the premises, but Gagnon had left by the time police arrived.

According to reports, Gagnon then started driving northbound on southbound I-280, entering the freeway at State Route 2. Police estimate Gagnon drove at least 3 miles in the wrong direction before hitting the Griffin van. Toledo police confirmed they had received numerous frantic calls about a pickup truck driving the wrong way on the freeway.

"I'm surprised he didn't hit anybody else," said accident investigator Officer Jeffrey Scott.

Danny Griffin reportedly tried in vain to avoid the oncoming pickup truck. The resulting crash sheared off the passenger side doors of the minivan, ejecting passengers onto the freeway where four died at the scene.

Vadi Griffin was found in her child restraint seat and died later at the hospital.

According to reports in the Toledo Blade, remnants of Christmas wrapping were strewn about the scene, as were toys, stuffed animals, luggage, and baby effects, including a damaged infant seat surrounded by pink blankets. Toledo fire Lt. Luis Santiago said the crash was "one of the most tragic" he had ever seen.

Andy Strader, 26, of Wooster, Ohio, said he was entering southbound I-280 from I-75 when a bystander flagged him down to stop him from hitting an accident victim who had fallen onto the pavement. He stopped and entered the minivan, where he assisted a boy and an infant in a safety seat, but also found a girl buckled into her seat.

"I almost became part of it, but I stopped in time," Strader said, adding that he saw the pickup's driver walking around and complaining about jaw pain.

In an interview with the Baltimore Sun, Michael Gagnon's brother, Samuel, said he, his brother and a number of cousins were partying at a hotel near Toledo where they had rented a room. Samuel Gagnon said his brother -- who wasn't supposed to be driving -- abruptly left the party without telling anyone.

"I don't know why he decided to leave," Samuel Gagnon, 21, told the newspaper by telephone. "Everyone's in shock. We're supposed to be celebrating the New Year, but now I got to look forward to my brother in jail the rest of his life."

Their sister, who is pregnant, was supposed to drive them home, but Gagnon said he discovered that his brother had abruptly left and had taken his pickup truck, which they use for their construction business in Adrian. Worried, Gagnon said he called his brother's cell phone.

He said his brother answered the phone and simply said: "Sorry, bro."

Later, an official from the Toledo Fire Department got on the phone and told Samuel Gagnon that his brother had been in a crash. According to Gagnon, he and his brother were planning to travel to Iowa within a few days to start construction work. Gagnon said he and other family members were turned away when they tried to visit their brother in the hospital.

Police Sgt. Richard Murphy said the crash was the worst he could remember during his 41 years as an officer.

"I can't recall having five at one time, ever," said Murphy, who reported that Gagnon was under guard at the hospital. Murphy said Gagnon will likely be released later today and then will be arrested.

You can reach Robert Snell at (313) 222-2028 or rsnell@detnews.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.