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Four people, including Wise County Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace Terri Johnson, died in a head-on collision just south of Decatur Saturday evening.
Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper William Cooper said Johnson was driving her Volkswagen Passat at a high rate of speed southbound in the northbound lane of U.S. 81/287 when she struck a northbound Chevy Trailblazer, killing three adults in that vehicle.
A 4-year-old girl in the Trailblazer was hospitalized with serious injuries.
The accident happened about a quarter-mile north of the crossover at County Road 4228 near National Ropers Supply (NRS) Trailers at 5:52 p.m.
What caused Johnson to be traveling in the wrong lane of traffic is still unclear and might remain so until investigators receive the results of blood samples taken at the scene.
Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Mandy Hays, who pronounced all four adult victims dead at the scene, said investigators found no evidence that would make them suspect alcohol or drugs were a factor in the crash at this time.
It is possible that Johnson, who was diabetic, had some sort of medical issue while driving, which led to the accident, Cooper said. The toxicology report would include electrolyte levels – which could indicate blood sugar information at the time of the wreck.
RECKLESS DRIVER CALLS
The Wise County Sheriff’s Department received multiple calls from motorists who reported what they believed to be an intoxicated driver, according to call sheets and 911 recordings obtained through an open records request by the Wise County Messenger.
The first call came in at 5:45 p.m. from around the rest area on U.S. 81/287 three miles north of Decatur. The caller stated that for “three or four miles” he had seen Johnson’s car driving shoulder to shoulder southbound in the southbound lanes of the highway.
Approximately five minutes later, the Sheriff’s Office received a call from a driver passing Karl Klement Ford, on the south side of Decatur, who also reported a possible intoxicated driver. Seconds after stating he was passing the car dealership, the caller said “he (Johnson) almost hit someone,” and then he said the vehicle was driving in the grass in the median.
Doug Baldwin, a salesman at Karl Klement Ford, was at the crossover near the dealership and was in the vehicle the caller reported was nearly hit.
He said he heard a “kaplump, kaplump” sound, which was apparently Johnson running over a piece of tire rubber in the road, just before she whizzed by, nearly clipping the back of his Ford Escape. Johnson’s car entered the median at that crossover and continued driving in the median for approximately 18 seconds, according to the 911 caller account.
Baldwin said he watched Johnson travel straight down the median of the highway and gradually come up out of a culvert toward the northbound lanes.
Although Baldwin didn’t see exactly where Johnson left the median, it appears she entered the northbound lanes just north of the U.S. 81/287 Business intersection, where flashing lights are located.
For the next two minutes, dispatchers began receiving numerous 911 calls about a wrong-way driver.
SCENE OF A NIGHTMARE
Former Bridgeport resident Ashley Kramer was northbound on U.S. 81/287 when she saw something unusual. A car appeared to be headed the wrong way toward her and other northbound vehicles.
She thought perhaps the car was actually on a side road – but as she got closer, Kramer realized the seriousness of the situation.
She told her 10-year-old and 6-year-old sons, who had been asleep, to duck and not look, and she quickly headed for the outside shoulder.
Kramer said she then witnessed what she could only describe as “horrific.”
“It looked like an explosion,” she said. “The Trailblazer flew 10 or 15 feet up into the air. Pieces flew everywhere.”
The crash took place in the inside lane. Cooper said no tire marks were found on the pavement, which would indicate neither vehicle applied its brakes. He estimated both were going highway speed, which would have been 60 to 70 miles per hour, when they collided.
Kramer said she was just two to four car lengths behind the crash. She told her two boys to stay in the car while she called 911 and began approaching the scene.
About that time, Kramer said a man who identified himself as an emergency medical technician from Houston came running up to the scene from the southbound lane of the highway. He began checking on the victims in the Trailblazer. Dispatchers asked Kramer to check on the victim in the passenger car.
“It was clear to me without even having to go up and check Mrs. Johnson that she was gone,” Kramer said, although she went up to her anyway to confirm.
Kramer said the EMT quickly determined the three adults in the Trailblazer were also dead. Cooper identified them as the driver, Juan Jose Rios, 31, of Quanah; and two passengers, Amy Dee Culwell, 35, of Chillicothe and Sherry Ann Rios, 50, of Quanah.
Juan and Amy’s 4-year-old daughter, Taylee, was still alive although injured and partially ejected from the SUV. The EMT got her out of the vehicle and handed her to Kramer.
“I went and got my son’s tiger blanket and wrapped her in it,” Kramer said.
Another woman came up and tried to distract the child from the chaos by playing games with her on a phone.
Call sheet records indicate medics arrived on the scene less than three minutes after the accident was reported. A CareFlite helicopter was requested for Taylee, who had serious but not life-threatening injuries, according to Cooper. She was flown to Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth.
As officers and more medics began to arrive and take over Taylee’s care, Kramer said it was then she sat down and let the tears flow. She began to ask herself if she could have done anything different to warn Rios of the approaching car that she saw, but that he apparently did not.
She took some comfort from seeing the quick response of people who came running to help strangers in need.
“It was amazing how many truck drivers jumped out with extinguishers. They used them on the Trailblazer, which was on fire. It was just the most amazing thing I’d ever seen – the good in people you don’t get to see every day,” Kramer said.
Two days after the accident, on Monday, Kramer said her family was still trying to cope with what they had witnessed.
“My kiddos refuse to sleep in their own beds,” she said, adding that her boys want to stay close by her side.
The wreck shut down all northbound traffic on U.S. 81/287, and traffic was eventually rerouted at Farm Road 407 to Farm Road 2264. The road remained closed for about four hours.
Mark Jordan contributed to this story.