Multiple factors led to the accident last year that killed four Yale students, according to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board.
On the evening of Jan. 17, nine students were returning from a Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity event in New York City when their vehicle struck a jack-knifed tractor-trailer, killing Kyle Burnat ’05, Andrew Dwyer ’05, Sean Fenton ’04 and Nicholas Grass ’05. According to the report, the truck driver panicked when he saw road flares from a previous accident, causing him to lose control of his vehicle. A lack of sleep by Fenton, the vehicle’s driver, as well as poor lighting and icy road conditions may also have contributed to the crash.
According to the report, Armando Salgado, the driver of the vehicle Fenton struck, said he “panicked” when he saw flares in the road and lost control of the tractor-trailer. The flares were from a previous accident that had occurred on the same stretch of road earlier in the morning. Three vehicles, including Fenton’s Chevrolet Tahoe, eventually hit the jack-knifed trailer.
Joel Faxon, an attorney for the Grass family, said he believes that Salgado is responsible for the accident.
“No professional truck driver should be panicking … because of the tragedy he can inflict with that vehicle he’s supposed to be in control of,” Faxon said. “I think that if he had not panicked, this may well never have happened.”
Faxon said that lawsuits against both Saldago and the trucking company may be forthcoming. He said he is planning to meet with the attorneys representing the families of the other crash victims soon.
“Well, I’ve been hired to investigate the case and then advise [Grass’] family,” Faxon said. “If the family gives me the authority, we are prepared to file.”
According to the report, Fenton had been awake for 20 hours the day of the accident. In the week before the accident, Fenton had missed two nights of sleep and spent other nights at DKE fraternity rush events, according to Walter Badgett ’04, Fenton’s roommate.
However, Lenore Estrada ’05, Fenton’s girlfriend, said he did not look or seem tired before he left for New York.
Faxon said he had not decided if Fenton bore any responsibility for the accident.
“Well, it’s unclear,” Faxon said. “The report does indicate that he was up for up to 20 hours. I’m not able to point a finger at Sean Fenton at this point.”
A driver visibility study in the report determined that Fenton should have been able to see the trailer in the road. Clark Anderson, from the U.S. Department of Transportation, tested the retroreflective tape attached to the rear of the trailer and a section of the headlight lens from Fenton’s car.
“It is my opinion that the combination of the Chevrolet Tahoe high-beam headlights and the retroreflective tape provided a clearly detectable signal for a normally observant and alert driver,” Anderson said in the report.
Fenton was a designated driver for the trip, and toxicology reports indicated that Fenton tested negative for drugs and alcohol. The DKE rush event included visits to several New York bars, and former DKE president Nicholas Sinatra ’03 said he had seen Fenton take one drink the night of the accident, according to an NTSB interview.
“Sean NEVER drove drunk (sic),” Estrada said in her NTSB letter. “He was quite vocal in his opposition to drinking and driving.”
The NTSB said that the conditions on the stretch of 1-95 where the accident occurred may also have played a role in the crash. Salgado told the NTSB that it was lightly snowing at the time of the accident. Several drivers described the road conditions Jan. 17 as slippery and wet. Additionally, a few hours before the crash, a contractor working on the road accidentally knocked out a number of lights near the scene of the accident.
Five other students who were also riding in the car sustained injuries in the accident. Zachery Bradley ’05, Cameron Fine ’06 and Chris Gary ’06 were released from the hospital a few days after the incident. Brett Smith ’06 and Eric Wenzel ’04 sustained more serious injuries, requiring prolonged stays in the hospital and intensive therapy.
Wenzel returned to campus this semester, but Smith has not, DKE president John Harabedian ’04 said.
“[Wenzel is] recovered 150 percent,” Harabedian said. “[Smith is] still recovering. He does hope to come back. It’s just a matter of when.”
Harabedian said that while the members of DKE have gotten over some of the shock of the accident, they are still grieving.
“Those four guys were the heart and soul of our fraternity,” Harabedian said.