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Witness to Thruway tragedy describes finding victim in crumpled car

Someone cut off another car on a notoriously difficult stretch of the Thruway on Thursday afternoon, setting off a chain reaction of crashes that left a Niagara Falls man dead and a tractor-trailer sprawled sideways across the interstate, stopping traffic in both directions.

Now state police investigators are seeking witnesses to the tragedy that unfolded on Interstate 90 in Cheektowaga.

Among those who did see it was Vincent Lombardo, an electrician from Cheektowaga who was on his way home from an appointment at his acupuncturist’s office.

“I heard the bang. Another bang. Then the truck started going sideways,” Lombardo said in an interview Friday. “I see him going through the wall.”

State Police said it began when an unidentified driver cut off the driver of a 2006 Toyota Tercel who was trying to merge onto the Thruway from the Cleveland Drive on-ramp, between where the Thruway meets the Youngmann and the Kensington expressways, a place where traffic often bottlenecks.

The driver of the Tercel was identified as Jason E. Askew, 34, of Cheektowaga.

Askew lost control of his vehicle and struck a 2006 Volkswagen Jetta driven by Louis D. Martin, 56, of Niagara Falls.

Martin’s car then slammed into a tractor trailer, a 2015 Freightliner, driven by Timothy L. Brown, 45, of Buffalo.

The truck crashed through the concrete median in the center of the Thruway. Martin’s car also ended up in the middle of the interstate just in front of the truck.

Lombardo said he was behind the two passenger cars when he heard the crash.

Traffic had been flowing at a normal pace, perhaps 55 to 60 mph.

Lombardo said he can’t recall seeing the car that cut off the Tercel. He thinks the truck started out in the left lane but then careened across the lanes. The cab crashed over the median and ended on the other side. The trailer stretched sideways across the westbound lanes.

Lombardo hit the brakes and wound up against the trailer, he said.

“It was almost like I was at a drive-in theater with the screen right in front of me,” he said. “The whole picture was right there. I had a front row seat.”

A former EMT in Florida, Lombardo flipped on his hazard lights and got out of his car to see if he could help.

Debris lay all across the road as he approached a crumpled blue car just in front of the trailer.

“It looked like the back end was smashed, and it looked like the front was smashed. … It was mangled,” he said. “The air bags were deployed.”

Lombardo approached the passenger side.

“It didn’t look like there was any door,” he said.

He saw the driver, Martin, slumped over toward the passenger side, and he was bleeding badly.

Lombardo reached in and put his hand on Martin’s carotid artery.

“I wasn’t getting a pulse,” Lombardo said.

And there was no way of getting the man out.

“He needed to be extricated,” Lombardo said.

A young man who had also gotten out to help approached. He was on a cellphone.

“You’re calling 911, right?” Lombardo recalled saying to him.

The man said he was.

Lombardo approached the Tercel. He said the driver, Askew, appeared shaken up but didn’t appear badly hurt.

“He was in his seat belt,” he said.

Authorities said Askew was later taken to Erie County Medical Center, where he was treated for non-life threatening injuries.

Lombardo returned to Martin and checked his pulse again.

“I was thinking – what can I do? But there was nothing I can do.”

About that time, an ambulance crew arrived, followed by state troopers, and Lombardo went home.

The Thruway was closed for hours after the crash, snarling traffic around the region through the evening rush hour commute.

Lombardo has since spoken with investigators about what he saw.

“I feel bad for the man and his family,” he said, after being told Martin’s name. “Going into the holidays and now they have a death. That’s the worst.”

Lombardo doesn’t believe he saw the car that cut off Askew. But he hopes that driver is found.

“Let’s hope that maybe he has a conscience and comes forward,” he said.

State Police have put out a plea to the public asking anyone who witnessed the crashes or has information to call Investigator Richard Kline at (716) 759-8638.

Despite Thursday’s accident and resulting traffic jam, officials say the Thruway stretch near the Youngmann Highway junction is relatively safe. Spokeswoman Jennifer Givner said Friday that the authority tracks accidents on a regular basis, recording about 109 system-wide accidents per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2014. The area immediately near Thursday’s accident registered about 62 accidents per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

“It’s a high volume, high traffic area,” she said, also noting the increased rush hour traffic at the time of the Thursday crash. But she also pointed to the significantly lower accident rate for the area.

Givner added that the Thruway Authority initiated several improvements near the accident site earlier this year as it completed the new Cleveland Drive overpass. In addition to replacing the overpass, work included realignment of the Cleveland Drive on-ramp to the westbound Thruway, and a lane extension from the eastbound Youngmann to the Kensington Expressway to alleviate further traffic concerns. The design of the new overpass also creates wider road shoulders by not requiring a center pier support, she said.

Two traffic accident investigation sites were also added as a part of this project to provide a safe pull-off area for drivers, she added.

“We’ve made some improvements along those lines to improve safety and traffic flow,” Givner said.

News Staff Reporter Robert J. McCarthy contributed to this report. email: mbecker@buffnews.com