Trooper jumps to avoid truck on I-81
The trooper was helped up the embankment by several motorists, including the trucker.
By Jeff Sturgeon
A Virginia State Police trooper who jumped off an embankment to avoid an out-of-control tractor-trailer was recovering at home Tuesday, two days after police charged the trucker who nearly struck the trooper with reckless driving on Interstate 81.
Trooper Kenneth Kozar, who has 21 years with the state police, was left "bruised up" after an attempt to remove a tire shred from the interstate in Southwest Virginia, Sgt. Paul Watts said.
"It was a very close call," Watts said.
A charge is pending against Enrique Gonzalez, 37, of California, police said. His hometown was not released.
I-81 is generating official concern about truck-related wrecks and their potential to end lives.
Wrecks involving commercial motor vehicles killed 12 people on I-81 in Virginia last year, more than on any other interstate, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, which is working with state police and other agencies to tighten enforcement of equipment and other regulations.
It all began about 7 p.m. Sunday on northbound I-81 when Kozar stopped to retrieve a tire shred a short distance before the Ironto rest stop. Troopers do this kind of thing from time to time, even though it is not specifically in their job description, Watts said.
It is done with blue lights flashing on the police car.
Normally, "you park, you run out," Watts said. "Thirty seconds later, you're back on the shoulder with the debris in your hand ready to leave."
Kozar was on foot in the left northbound lane when he glanced at approaching northbound traffic and saw a big rig whose driver appeared to be losing control, police said.
Kozar ran off the highway, crossed the shoulder, jumped over the guardrail and tumbled downhill, Watts said. Fearing the truck may tumble off the interstate, too, he tumbled all the way to the bottom, where he came to rest in a smelly, overgrown quagmire about 2 feet deep with water, Watts said.
The truck's driver, who was hauling melons and red peppers, told police that he pulled to the left lane when he saw traffic ahead of him slowing down, Watts said.
His plan was to slow down there, but he couldn't.
The trucker then veered across the right lane and onto the outside shoulder and braked when he saw the trooper's parked vehicle, Watts said. His truck hit the guardrail, fell to one side and slid into the rear of the police car, Watts said.
By then, Kozar had jumped.
Several motorists, including the trucker, went down the embankment to Kozar and helped bring him up. Everybody got soaked and muddy.
"I'm immensely grateful," Watts said. "I'm very thankful that the public thought enough of the trooper to go down and help him."
Watts, asked if the wreck was preventable, said he did not know. All the other motorists slowed and kept their vehicles under control, Watts said, while the trucker "did not see what everybody else was seeing."
"The lesson to be learned is, as in most crashes, driver inattention is a causative factor," Watts said.
"Driver inattention puts people in bad situations that sometimes are very difficult to recover from."
It took about 12 hours to fully reopen the road. On Tuesday, the guardrail remained flattened, and peppers and melons littered the area.