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JANUARY 8, 2006


Route 1 Freeway South,
Lawrence Township

A motor vehicle accident on Route 1 in which two young men were killed and two others hurt, and a massive warehouse fire in Trenton that required mutual aid from all over Mercer County kept Lawrence Road Fire Co. volunteers busy on Sunday, January 8, 2006.

The deadly crash occurred at about 6:20 p.m. along the southbound side of the Route 1 Freeway, north of Whitehead Road, when a southbound Honda Accord veered off the road for an unknown reason and slammed head-on into a tree.

The two-door car was occupied by four men, all natives of Guatemala. The driver, who police identified as a 23-year-old Trenton resident, and the rear left-side passenger, a 33-year-old man, were seriously injured but survived the crash.

But the front passenger, a man in his 20s whose exact age was unknown, and the rear right-side passenger, a 21-year-old man, were killed instantly.

At 6:25 p.m. Mercer County Central Communications Center transmitted Box 21-10 and dispatched the Slackwood Fire Co. (Station 21), Rescue 22 from Lawrence Road Fire Co., and Rescue 23 from Lawrenceville Fire Co.

Also dispatched about that time were a Lawrence Emergency Medical Service ambulance and Capital Health System paramedics, along with numerous township police units.

At 6:26 p.m. Slackwood Deputy Chief Richard Johnson responded in Car 21-1.

Rescue 22 also signed on radio at 6:26 p.m., with Capt. Shaun Dlabik in command, Capt. Michael Ratcliffe driving, and a crew that included Ff. Joseph Dlabik Jr., Ff. Ryan Dlabik, Ff. Charles Commini Jr., and Ff. R.J. Laird.

Rescue 21 responded at 6:27 p.m., followed by Lawrence Road Chief Wayne Hannon in Car 22 at 6:28 p.m., Rescue 23 at 6:29 p.m., Snorkel 21 at 6:30 p.m., and Utility 21 at 6:33 p.m.

Johnson arrived at 6:32 p.m. and learned from police and EMS personnel already on the scene that the driver and surviving passenger were already out of the wreckage and that the car’s remaining two passengers were already dead.

Because none of the survivors was trapped, Johnson ordered all fire apparatus to proceed into the scene at non-emergency speed.

Rescue 21, which accessed the accident scene by entering Route 1 from Whitehead Road and going northbound in the highway’s shoulder, arrived at 6:33 p.m. and its crew immediately helped EMS personnel package the two survivors. They also set up tripod lights.

Both patients were rushed by ambulance to the trauma center at Capital Health System at Fuld hospital, where they later recovered from their injuries, according to police. (Police later charged the driver with a criminal offense for being an unlicensed driver.)

Rescue 22 reached the scene at 6:34 p.m. and took a position nose-to-nose with Rescue 21. Under the direction of Johnson, Rescue 22’s crew stretched a charged 1.75-inch hoseline into a standby position and raised Rescue 22’s light tower as the wrecked car’s battery was secured.

Hannon also arrived at 6:34 p.m., followed by Rescue 23 at 6:35 p.m., and then Snorkel 21 and Utility 21 at 6:37 p.m.

Because of the two fatalities, police immediately secured the accident scene and called in Lawrence Township detectives and investigators from the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office.

The entire southbound side of Route 1 was closed to traffic between the Business Route 1 split and Whitehead Road so police investigators could measure and photograph skid marks and other evidence in the roadway. Rescue 23 was later backed up to where the evidence trail began to use their lights to aid investigators.

At 7:14 p.m. Johnson recalled Snorkel 21 and Utility 21 because the two units were not needed and it was clear that efforts to recover the two victims’ bodies from the wreckage could not be begin until police had completed their investigation.

Ultimately, the crews from Rescue 21, Rescue 22, and Rescue 23 stood by on the scene, without doing anything, for over two hours while township police and the prosecutor’s office investigated the crash.

At 7:03 p.m., Hannon left the scene to return Ff. Laird (who had a prior commitment) to the firehouse.

As the Lawrence Road volunteers on Rescue 22 and the other firefighters were standing around waiting on Route 1, a major blaze erupted in a vacant furniture warehouse at 1301 New York Avenue in Trenton, located right on the city’s border with Lawrence Township.

Reported at 7:52 p.m., the blaze rapidly engulfed the two-story, block-long structure. The entire Trenton Fire Department responded as second and third alarms were sounded in rapid succession. Mutual aid was quickly called in from surrounding towns, including Lawrence, to help with water supply and multiple master stream operations.

At 8:13 p.m., Slackwood’s Snorkel 21 was sent to the firegound, followed at 8:18 by Lawrence Road’s Engine 22.

At 8:50 p.m., following a request from Trenton for six additional engine companies, Mercer County Central asked Rescue 22 and Rescue 23 if they were available to respond.

At that time, efforts to extricate the two victims from the wreckage were just beginning, so Rescue 22 was committed at the accident and was unable to leave.

Rescue 23, however, left the accident scene and responded to the fire in Trenton. Slackwood’s Engine 21, Lawrence Road’s Telesquirt 22, and Lawrenceville Ladder Tower 23 all eventually responded to the fireground in Trenton before the blaze was declared under control at 12:52 a.m.

Meanwhile, as the Trenton fire raged, Rescue 21’s crew and Rescue 22’s crew set about recovering the bodies of the two victims from the Honda’s mangled wreckage.

Lawrence Road Ff. Martin Burch (who had been driving on Route 1 when the accident occurred and who had arrived on scene before firefighters) volunteered to man Rescue 22’s pump so Ratcliffe could assist with extrication efforts.

A tow truck was used to pull the wreckage away from the tree and back up near the road.

Slackwood and Lawrence Road firefighters then quickly cut away the roof and both doors of the badly-damaged vehicle. As the brunt of the impact with the tree had been on the front right side, the front passenger was heavily entrapped by the dashboard and front wheel.
A ram was placed on the right side to lift the twisted metal and plastic, while the driver’s seat was cut away to allow better access to the two victims’ bodies.

Ultimately, both bodies were removed from the wreckage and placed in the care of a representative of the Mercer County Medical Examiner’s Office by about 9:15 p.m.

At that point, firefighters quickly packed up their equipment and went available.

Rescue 22 cleared the scene at 9:22 p.m. and was directed by Mercer County Central to proceed back to Station 22 to cover both Lawrence Township and Ewing Township (which both had much of their apparatus committed at the fire scene in Trenton or covering city firehouses.)

Rescue 22 was back in quarters at 9:27 p.m.

Rescue 22’s crew remained at Station 22 standing by until about 2 a.m. Also standing by at the Lawrence Road firehouse during this time was Rescue 45 and a crew of seven firefighters from the Newtown Fire Association of Newtown Borough, Bucks County, Pa.

Newtown’s rescue-pumper was sent to Station 22 after Capt. Dlabik directed Mercer County Central to send a mutual aid engine to help cover Lawrence Township.

Also during the Trenton fire, Ladder 31 from Fairless Hills Fire Co., Falls Township, Pa., relocated to cover Slackwood’s firehouse, while Ladder Tower 80 from Yardley-Makefield Fire Co. of Lower Makefield Township, Pa., stood by at Lawrenceville’s firehouse.

All photos copyright (c) 2006 by Michael Ratcliffe

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