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Crash kills ex-Salk researcher

| Thursday, Oct. 13, 2005, 12:00 p.m.

An ambulance smashed into a car Wednesday morning in Point Breeze, killing a retired city water official who once worked as a research assistant to Dr. Jonas Salk.

J. Thomas Bruecken, 78, of Point Breeze, was traveling south on Linden Avenue at 10:24 a.m. when his blue Toyota Camry collided with a city ambulance at the intersection of Linden and Penn avenues.

The impact of the crash pushed the vehicles into a Port Authority of Allegheny County bus, said Pittsburgh police spokeswoman Tammy Ewin.

Two paramedics in the ambulance were treated for minor injuries at Allegheny General Hospital, North Side. There were no other injuries, Ewin said.

Bruecken was taken to UPMC Presbyterian hospital in Oakland, where he was pronounced dead about 30 minutes after the crash.

Friends and relatives were stunned by the sudden end to a colorful life.

After a two-year attempt at a pro football career under the name "Johnny Thomas," Bruecken went to work for Salk in 1950 at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, working for four years and $100 a month as part of the research team that developed the polio vaccine.

Bruecken married his wife, Dorothy, in 1954 and took a job as a bacteriologist with the city water department.

He used an alias during his brief stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns in an effort to keep his football career a secret, said his son, Robert Bruecken, 50, of Point Breeze.

"He didn't want his mother to know it because she didn't allow it," he said.

Greg Tutsock, executive director of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, described Bruecken as a jovial, down-to-earth man who always wished everyone a happy day and sometimes ended his written sentences with smiley faces.

The authority renamed the Brilliant Pump Station in Highland Park the J. Thomas Bruecken Pump Station when Bruecken retired.

"I'm just at a loss for words because he meant a lot to a lot of people. He meant a lot to me. He meant a lot to this organization," said Tutsock, who had lunch with Bruecken two weeks ago.

Crash investigators at the scene declined to comment.

"Our investigating officer tells me these investigations take weeks, not days," Ewin said.

The ambulance was traveling west on Penn Avenue, responding to a crash on nearby Washington Boulevard when it collided with Bruecken's car. The bus was headed east and stopped at the signal at Penn and Linden avenues.

Pittsburgh EMS Chief Robert McCaughan said he did not know whether paramedics went through a red light or how fast they were traveling.

State law requires motorists to yield to approaching emergency vehicles, including ambulances, operating flashing lights and sirens.

Sam McNulty, 16, was inside his house on the corner of Penn and South Linden avenues when he heard the ambulance siren followed by the crash.

"I was out within a second. I saw the paramedics jump out of the ambulance," he said.

Joe Thomas, 60, of Dallas Avenue, said he's been pushing the city for 20 years to improve traffic controls in Point Breeze because of the rising number of drivers using the narrow streets. While the city has improved some intersections, it needs to do an overall study instead of addressing the problem piecemeal, he said.

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