Crash ‘miracle’ protects local motorist amid fatal collision
November 8, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
Traffic stopped on eastbound Interstate 90 late last month as emergency responders raced to a deadly accident — and a miracle.
Longtime Issaquah resident Lily Skelton, sister Priscilla Schenkel, a Renton resident, and friends Kate Cochran and Lisa Malmin, survived the fatal crash Oct. 17, as motorists in another mangled vehicle died at the scene.
“It was a miracle,” Skelton said days after escaping from a crumpled car lodged between tractor-trailers.
Cochran and Malmin traveled to Washington from Arizona for Schenkel’s birthday. Leavenworth made for a perfect trip to glimpse autumn foliage and mountain splendor after days spent sightseeing in Issaquah and Seattle.
In the backseat, Cochran and Malmin snapped photos as Skelton’s Buick LeSabre crossed Snoqualmie Pass. Near Hyak, Skelton deactivated the cruise control and slowed amid the construction zone.
“It was a beautiful day and everybody was driving calmly,” Skelton said.
Signs about the Snoqualmie Pass East construction project lined the roadside. Soon, traffic stopped and Skelton, a cautious driver, left about a car length between the Buick and a tractor-trailer up ahead. Behind the car, another tractor-trailer sat idle.
“We’re coming down Hyak and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so beautiful!’ — the lake, the mountains, the colors — and then, kaboom,” Skelton said.
Washington State Patrol investigators said a tractor-trailer and a Jeep Cherokee collided behind the Buick. The impact pushed the rig behind the Buick into the car. The sedan surged ahead into the other tractor-trailer.
“As the car was getting scrunched and more scrunched, I was like, ‘Oh, God! Jesus, help us!’” Skelton said. “You could tell we were getting squished. Then, all of the sudden it stopped and we were spared.”
The impact caused the trunk to shift into the backseat and pushed the backseat passengers into the front seat headrests at a 90-degree angle.
Skelton ground the brake pedal into the floorboard as the impact upended the floorboard.
In the passenger seat, Schenkel sat stunned as the Buick crumbled.
“I heard a big screech of brakes, I heard a big crash — and then the crash was us. It was just scrunching into the back of our car,” she said. “Then, just a really horrible silence.”
The race for survival
In the frantic seconds after the accident, smoke billowed from beneath the ruined hood. In the backseat, blood streamed from Cochran’s forehead.
“The dashboard had been shoved aside and we were looking at the engine,” Schenkel said. “We have got to get out of this car.”
Schenkel, a surgical nurse at Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue, dialed 911 as she assessed the other passengers’ injuries.
“We just had to make the call to get them out of the car, no matter what people’s neck or back injuries were,” she said. “We feared that it was going to start on fire. We had to get out of the car and clear the scene.”
State Department of Transportation and construction workers from Mukilteo-based KLB Construction leapt into action just after the accident and helped free Skelton, Schenkel and Malmin from a passenger-side window on the totaled Buick.
The accident reaffirmed a deep religious faith for the women.
“Lisa was still stuck, so Kate got down on her knees and just started begging God to get her out of there, because we thought the car was going to catch on fire,” Skelton said. “Then, all of the sudden, Lisa was loose and they were dragging her out.”
The crash’s aftermath
Behind the tractor-trailer, only wreckage remained from the Jeep. Star, Idaho, residents Jess Albert Bass, 68, and Jean Elaine Bass, 73, perished in the crash.
“The front of that car had the back of it in it,” Skelton said. “You just looked at it and you knew that there was nothing left.”
Sitting inside a truck stopped 10 vehicles behind the accident, John Harris, a Department of Transportation chief inspector, noticed a dust cloud in the distance and then pulled onto the shoulder to reach the scene.
The state agency trains crews “to do whatever it takes to get the job done and make sure people are as comfortable as possible until the first aid rigs show up,” he said.
The crew from Spokane-based Max J. Kuney Construction, lead contractor on the Snoqualmie Pass East project, pulled a truck onto the scene for Skelton and company to sit. Other workers handed the women water to sip as emergency responders headed to the accident.
“Everybody pulled together great. It was a joint effort,” Harris said. “We had DOT employees, we had contractor employees.”
Medics transported the women to Overlake, a 50-mile drive from Snoqualmie Pass. In the hospital, family members and Schenkel’s supervisor greeted the party in the emergency room.
“We got to go home to our families,” Skelton said. “We got to hear my daughter running down the hall at the hospital, calling ‘Mommy! Mommy!’”
Skelton, a longtime Continental Airlines employee, received get-well wishes from across the country and started considering a replacement for the much-loved Buick lost in the accident.
“It makes me want to be especially careful driving,” Skelton said.
In the hours after the collision, a Department of Transportation survey crew assisted the state patrol in investigating the accident. Investigators said the Bass’ small dog jumped from the Jeep during the crash and ran along the interstate.
The survey crew managed to capture the terrified dog, and a maintenance employee cared for the animal overnight. Officials later returned the dog to the Bass family.
“Everybody just kind of pulled together to make the best out of a very, very bad situation,” Harris said.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or email@example.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.