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Expressway tragedy is so 'senseless'

As family members grieve for the two men killed early Saturday when a pickup truck traveling the wrong way on the Kensington Expressway slammed head-on into their sport utility vehicle, a word kept surfacing: "senseless."

Authorities are awaiting results from blood tests to determine whether the pickup driver, Matthew Ruckdaschel, had been drinking alcohol. Emergency workers at the scene detected the smell of alcohol on the 24-year-old Getzville resident, who remains in critical condition in Erie County Medical Center's intensive-care unit, police said.

Based on the aftermath and the account of a cabdriver who witnessed the crash, there is no question that Ruckdaschel's wrong-way trip on the Kensington is what ended the lives of 37-year-old Buffalo resident Orlando E. Anderson, a rental agent and father of three, and his cousin Thomas Johnson, 42, of Cleveland, a carpenter and father of five.

"It's time for us to wake up if this was alcohol-related. This was senseless, and as human beings, we have to learn," said Stanley Billups, an uncle of Anderson and a cousin of Johnson. "We all hear it every day: 'Don't drink and drive.' We have to practice what we preach."

Besides traveling east on westbound Route 33, Ruckdaschel was speeding and never braked before the fiery collision, according to a taxi driver who tried to prevent the crash but ended up witnessing it.

"I was trying to get him to slow down. I was flashing my headlights coming up behind him from the eastbound lanes," said Broadway Taxi driver Brian Farmel. "I'd say he was going 80 miles per hour. He never put on his brakes. I saw no brake lights."

In a matter of seconds, Farmel viewed the crash at about 4:45 a.m. between East Utica and Best streets.

"I just [saw] a big flash and a ball of fire," he said.

Farmel and another motorist who stopped tried to help Anderson and Johnson, whose SUV was split in two.

"We tried to pull the passenger out, but a supervisor from Rural/Metro ambulance who just happened to be driving behind me said he had checked his vital signs and [the passenger] was dead and to leave him alone," said Farmel, who then noticed a fire beneath the pickup and flagged down a truck. "I asked the guy, 'Do you have a fire extinguisher on your rig?' He gave me one."

Farmel said, "I jumped over the concrete barrier and put the fire out under the pickup truck. I saw the man in the truck move a little, and he was groggy. Ambulance workers and firefighters arrived and at first thought he was dead, but then they started saying, 'We have movement.' "

A cabdriver for 10 years, Farmel, 32, of Buffalo, said he noticed the pickup going the wrong way when he entered the outbound, or eastbound, expressway lanes by Genesee Street. "I radioed my dispatcher and told her, 'There's a dude in a red pickup truck going up the highway the wrong way.' She called 911," said Farmel, who is known among cabbies as the driver of "Car No. 2."

Accident Investigation Unit Lt. Joseph K. Pierchala and Investigators Calvin D. Carter, Johnnie A. Fritz and Carolyn J. Mishoe were continuing to gather information late Monday on what led to the crash.

The impact of the collision was so intense, police said, that it separated the SUV's engine and drivetrain from the rest of the vehicle.

The two cousins had gone out at some point prior to the crash, but where is uncertain, Billups said. "They went out that evening, but regardless of where they were coming from, they were victims of this horrendous fatality."

Since Saturday, the loved ones of Anderson and Johnson have been dealing with a mix of heartbreak and frustration. A steady flow of visitors continued to arrive at Christine Anderson's home Monday to provide support.

"My son died senselessly. He was a father of three young children, and he worked every day to support them," she said.

After attending Rochester Institute of Technology following graduation from Turner-Carroll High School, Anderson worked for 15 years at Xerox in the Rochester area, his family said.

A few years ago, he was laid off, returned home to Buffalo and found work as a rental agent at Towne Gardens Apartments on the near East Side.

Johnson, his cousin, was considering moving to Buffalo, relatives said.

"Thomas was looking at the possibility of moving up here," Billups said. "Thomas came up here all the time. We are a big, close-knit family. That's how we were raised."

But the Andersons are now finding an even bigger family: those in the community.

"We're getting all kinds support on Facebook, and we just want to thank them -- people we don't even know," Billups said.

Anderson, Billups added, was a devoted father, even after he moved to Buffalo in search of work.

"His children live with their mother in Rochester, but they came here all the time. He went and got them. His son played little league football here in Buffalo," the uncle said. "It's just another senseless loss of life. They were both two devoted fathers."

Anderson is survived by his son, Onajae, 9; two daughters, Oniya, 7, and August, 3; his father, Bobby Anderson; and two brothers, Darnell and Corey.

Services for Anderson are set for 11 a.m. Saturday in Friendship Baptist Church, 402 Clinton St., after a viewing at 10 in the sanctuary.

Johnson's service is set for 6:30 p.m. Friday in Hopewell Baptist Church in Cleveland.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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