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Inquiry into crash response continues

Darkness and vague location hindered efforts to find accident victims.
Wednesday, December 3, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:19 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

The message sent out to Columbia Police units by dispatchers after an accident Friday on U.S. 63 near Broadway said only that the accident occurred somewhere near a bridge on the highway between Broadway and Stadium.

Police did not find the victims until driver Jerad Miller, 21, crawled up an embankment to flag down help after regaining consciousness the next morning.

Miscommunication

Over the radio, dispatchers first described the area as U.S. 63 and Stadium Boulevard, instead of U.S. 63 and Broadway, where the accident occurred. Miller said police told him Saturday morning that they were unable to find him the night before because they searched at U.S. 63 and Stadium Boulevard instead of U.S. 63 and Broadway.

But Joe Piper, administrative services coordinator at joint communications, said dispatchers handling the call were simply following regulations when they entered the data. Piper explained that when dispatchers receive a call, they must first enter an intersection for reference. Because they only knew the accident was somewhere between Stadium Boulevard and Broadway, Piper said, they happened to choose Stadium Boulevard.

"As long as it’s later spelled out where it is, which it was here, it really shouldn’t matter whether they pick Stadium or Broadway."

-Joe Piper, administrative services coordinator at joint communications

“As long as it’s later spelled out where it is, which it was here, it really shouldn’t matter whether they pick Stadium or Broadway,” Piper said.

Tapes of the 8:27 p.m. conversation between the dispatcher and a person who called 911 from a Texaco station on Falling Leaf Lane were not immediately available.

Five officers and a supervisor responded, searching the area for 17 minutes, Columbia Police Capt. Zim Schwartze said.

Columbia Fire Chief William Markgraf said that, to his knowledge, the fire department did not respond to that accident. The fire department only responds to an accident with unknown injuries when there is a fire, leaking fluid, a report that nobody is emerging from the vehicle, or other indications of injury, he said.

Schwartze said the police department has not determined whether officers searched the exact area where the victims were found the next morning.

Unsuccessful search

Although police did get out of their vehicles to search with flashlights, it is unknown whether they looked in the creek bed, Schwartze said.

This information remains unknown because no notes are kept of exactly where officers search when they are on foot and because police have not yet had a chance to interview all the officers involved, Schwartze said.

Because the blue Chevrolet Lumina was overturned, the vehicle would have been very hard to see in a creek bed in the dark because the undercarriage is dark, Schwartze said.

“A few of the officers were really upset when they found out,” Schwartze said. “I know they did the best they could with the information they had.”

Schwartze confirmed Tuesday that police now officially know the accident happened Friday night, but said they still cannot be sure whether the 911 call received Friday was for the same car found Saturday morning.

Police have listened to the 911 call and are continuing their investigation into the incident. Schwartze said the department is investigating why officers were unable to locate the overturned car sooner.

Joseph W. Stenger, 23, died at the scene of the accident of a blunt impact to the chest and lacerations of the aorta, said Jo Fountain, chief death investigator with the Boone County Medical Examiners Office.

But police have said it is doubtful that Stenger would have survived if he was found Friday night.

“Even if we found it right by the road and right away, I don’t know if he would have made it,” Schwartze said.


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