Man dies after fiery crash on U.S. 63

Thursday, October 25, 2007 | 9:50 p.m. CDT; updated 11:36 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Firefighters investigate the scene of an accident on U.S. 63. The driver died after his car caught fire in the crash.

COLUMBIA — The 65-year-old man who died Thursday after crashing his sport utility vehicle into a ditch alongside U.S. 63 was identified today as James L. Kellett of Columbia.

Kellett was driving north when he ran off the road and hit a small post, Columbia police said. The SUV briefly returned to the road before it crossed four lanes of traffic near the Route AC exit. After the vehicle skidded across an open field, hit some trees and went into a ravine about 500 feet from the highway, the engine of the Lincoln Navigator caught fire. The flames spread into the passenger compartment, said Capt. Rick Douglas of the Columbia Fire Department.

Fatal October

On Oct. 11 at the U.S. 63 and COLT Railroad crossing, Ralph Haller, 64, struck a gasoline tanker truck driven by Travis Davidson. Haller later died at University Hospital due to injuries he suffered in the crash. On Oct. 13 on U.S. 63, Whitney Michelle Bentlage, 18, and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Shea, 20, died after their vehicle slid on the wet highway, crossed into oncoming traffic and struck a tractor-trailor headed south. Both were ejected from the vehicle in the accident.

Witnesses told Douglas the driver didn’t appear to have control of the vehicle and didn’t seem to be trying to slow down before the crash, which happened just before 3 p.m.

Kellett was trapped inside the SUV as witnesses tried to extinguish the fire and pull him out. The vehicle was wedged between trees and a concrete drain at the bottom of a ravine just south of the exit, Douglas said.

The burning vehicle was hidden from highway traffic as witnesses tried to flag down passing motorists for help, said Columbia police Sgt. Tim Moriarity.

Columbia Fire Department’s Quint 3 extinguished the fire and opened the jammed driver’s side door to remove Kellett, who was conscious but had been burned on several parts of his body, Douglas said. There was no indication that any other vehicle was involved in the crash, Moriarity said.

What caused the driver to lose control was unknown, though vehicle malfunction or a medical condition were suspected, Moriarity said. Reconstructing and investigating the accident could take up to 30 days, Moriarity said.

Moriarity said that fatal crashes have spiked this month in Columbia.

“We’ve had two fatalities all year, and all of a sudden we’ve got four in October,” he said.

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