Police chief says dry rot caused tree to fall on car and kill 2 sisters
A Somerset County police chief said dry rot caused a large tree to fall on top of a car heading south on Route 403, killing two young girls sitting in the back seat.
Conemaugh Township Police Chief Louis Barclay identified the victims as sisters, 8-year-old Ryleigh Freiwald and 6-year-old Mikayla Freiwald, believed to be from the Johnstown area.
The freak accident occurred on Monday afternoon, 5 miles south of Johnstown between Davidsville and Tire Hill, when a 2004 Pontiac Grand Am driven by Jason Himebaugh, 36, reached the crest of a hill and the tree fell.
The car then veered to the left and crashed into a utility pole, the chief said.
Two other children, Ciara Freiwald, 5, and Lillie Freiwald, 3; the four girls' mother, Ashley Lichty, 26; and Himebaugh are being treated at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown, Barclay said.
Lichty, who is eight months pregnant, is still carrying the child, Barclay said.
“She got out of the vehicle,” he said. “The (driver) was unconscious behind the wheel.”
Paramedic Adam Trabold of Conemaugh Township EMS said he went to the crash site and was later joined by two off-duty paramedics who responded.
“After I arrived on the scene, it was uncontrolled chaos,” Trabold said.
“We were trying to get everything done. Once you get more resources, you're able to focus on one patient at a time. I tried to treat each patient as (my) family member,” he said.
“Because children were involved, it makes it more stressful. We've seen more fatalities in a single crash,” said Terry Ruparcic, who manages the EMS station. “But when kids are involved, that changes the game.”
Trabold said losing children is emotionally difficult.
“In the 10 years I've been here, this is a 9 out of a 10 on a scale,” he said.
The paramedics were debriefed by mental health counselors after the accident.
Barclay said a state police team was reconstructing how the accident happened about 2:30 p.m.
“I took a look at the base of the tree and it appeared to be dry rot,” the chief said.
Two police detectives interviewed Lichty and Himebaugh at the hospital. The two injured children were expected to be released from the hospital on Tuesday, Barclay said. He said they were outside the car with their mother when police arrived.
Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller said the two girls died of blunt-force trauma to the head.
Himebaugh has been dating Lichty for about 18 months and is about eight months pregnant with his child, said his friend, Dan Gorgone, a professional disc jockey in the Johnstown suburb of Richland.
“It's been hard,” Gorgone said of the news that the children had died and his two friends are hospitalized.