Driver of airborne car critically hurt in Tarentum

Members from Eureka Fire-Rescue work to free a victim trapped in the car after an accident in the loop area on the Tarentum side of the Tarentum Bridge as traffic backs up on both sides of the bridge on Thursday, December 1, 2011.
Members from Eureka Fire-Rescue work to free a victim trapped in the car after an accident in the loop area on the Tarentum side of the Tarentum Bridge as traffic backs up on both sides of the bridge on Thursday, December 1, 2011.
| Friday, Dec. 2, 2011

An elderly motorist was critically injured last night and a second person hurt in a spectacular seven-vehicle accident on Thursday that backed up traffic in all directions from the Tarentum Bridge.

Kathryn Guenther, 82, of New Kensington was taken by ambulance to Allegheny General Hospital, Pittsburgh, where she was in critical condition late Thursday.

Another motorist was treated and released from a local hospital.

The rush hour accident occurred at the intersection of Seventh and Sixth avenues, Ross Street (Route 366) and the bridge at about 4:45 p.m. Traffic was stopped or slowed to a crawl until about 6:15 p.m. when the wreckage was cleared.

The New Kensington-bound lanes of the bridge were closed, backing up Route 366 traffic to the Route 28 exit ramp and then some. At times, the backup extended all the way to the Pittsburgh Mills mall. Drivers searching for other routes, including through East Deer, found no relief.

Police said the vehicle that apparently caused the accident, Guenther's red Pontiac Grand Am, went airborne before crashing into two other vehicles. Those vehicles, a van and an SUV, were stopped in the lanes that curve between the bridge's Tarentum-bound and New Kensington-bound lanes at the Tarentum end of the bridge. They were waiting to get onto the bridge heading toward New Kensington.

"It was something to see that car go airborne," said Michael Holmes, 48, of Leechburg.

Holmes, a lieutenant in the Leechburg fire department, was stopped in the turning lane at the bottom of Ross Street when he looked up to see Guenther's car flying through the air.

He rushed over and found her to be conscious.

"She was talking," Holmes said, and complaining of neck pain.

Richard Jackson, 63, of New Kensington, the van's driver, was taken to Allegheny Valley Hospital, Harrison, where he was treated and released, a hospital administrator said.

"Apparently, from what witnesses said, (Guenther) came flying down Ross Street," said Tarentum Patrolman Kurt Jendrejewski.

Jendrejewski said police don't know what prompted the accident.

He said one witness he interviewed was facing the accident as it happened, from the Tarentum-bound lanes of the bridge.

"The witness said she was all over the place and then she went airborne," Jendrejewski said. "Another witness told me she was about seven or eight feet off the ground."

According to Jendrejewski, when Guenther's car got to the bottom of Ross Street, it sideswiped a vehicle in the right lane driven by Jane Yulrich of Pittsburgh. It then moved over and sideswiped, in succession, cars driven by Deborah Richardsen of New Kensington, Kathleen Schrag of Apollo and Michaela Kennedy of Leechburg.

He said she hit the curb of the landscaped area separating the lanes. That area includes a flagpole in the midst of a huge mound of mulch.

Jendrejewski said Guenther's car climbed the curb and the mulch mound served as a ramp, propelling the car into the air.

It knocked down a traffic sign as it went through the air then came back down inside the landscaped area before skidding another six to eight feet and hitting the SUV, driven by Thomas Fortuna Jr., 34, of New Kensington.

"She spun that one around, she pushed the whole front end over," Holmes said.

Jendrejewski said the front end of Fortuna's SUV spun around and slammed into the rear passenger side of Jackson's van while Guenther's car hit the van's passenger side and stopped.

Jackson was pinned inside, between Guenther's car and the van on one side and a concrete barrier on the other.


Witnesses said the Guenther car was moving down the hill from the direction of Route 28 like "lightning," straddling the two lanes.

"I saw this little red car flying (down the hill), and next thing you know it was flying in the air," said Michaela Kennedy of Allegheny Township.

Kennedy said the car knocked off her passenger-side mirror and pushed her car to the left before hitting the curb. The right front fender of her Toyota was damaged.

"The SUV stopped him," Kennedy said, assuming, as other witnesses did, that the driver was a man. "He was up in the air. I thought he was going to go over the bridge."

Deborah Richardsen of New Kensington said traffic was moving slowly down the hill when she heard a "boom" behind her, felt a big jolt and knew she had been hit.

"He kept hitting car after car after car," she said. "He was going like really fast. It's amazing he didn't hit more cars."

Kathy Schrag of Allegheny Township said she heard the mirror on her car being hit.

"He was moving pretty fast. He was between the lanes," she said.

"I just kept thinking, this car was flying," Kennedy said. "The speed — it was like lightning."

Even after the bridge was reopened at about 6:15 p.m., traffic continued to be snarled on Freeport Road in East Deer as motorists detoured to the Ninth Street Bridge and on the Harrison exits of the expressway at Burtner Road and Route 908.

The matter was complicated when a wreck occurred at the northbound Exit 13 ramp at Crawford Run Road in East Deer and snarled traffic more.

Traffic was at a near-standstill on Route 28 near Exit 17 at Route 356 in Buffalo Township, but 911 dispatchers couldn't determine why. They said that local police reported the backup, which was at least a mile long, but they were not aware of any other accidents.


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