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The driver of a tractor-trailer that killed six people in a fiery crash 17 days ago on the elevated section of the Niagara Thruway was looking in his side rearview mirrors just seconds before the collision occurred, authorities say.

Barton Forth told investigators he was attempting to determine if he could move his southbound truck from the right lane into the center lane when he looked out in front of him and saw a van and other vehicles slowing down.

He slammed on the brakes of his rig, loaded with 10 new cars, and skidded more than 100 feet before his 79,000-pound truck slammed into a Carrier Coach van.

The van and other vehicles had slowed down because two cars involved in an earlier, minor fender-bender accident had stopped, according to police.

It was a mistake for two motorists involved in the earlier fender-bender to stop, according to federal highway officials who joined in the accident investigation at the request of Rep. Jack F. Quinn Jr., R-Hamburg.

"The real story here is the two cars stopping on an elevated highway without a shoulder to discuss an accident. Forth is really a victim himself," said Byrd Raby, a transportation safety specialist for the National Transportation Safety Board.

"You don't stop on railroad tracks when the lights are flashing, and you don't stop on a roadway designed to move traffic. The public has to be educated on that."

Forth said Thursday he was attempting to move into the middle lane because it is safer than driving in the right lane where traffic enters and exits.

No traces of alcohol or drugs were found in his system, authorities said, adding that a check of his driving record showed he has been a truck driver 25 years and has a clean record. He has spent the last 15 years transporting new cars.

"Forth was looking in his mirrors, and when he looked in front, he saw that traffic was stopping, and he just slammed into it," said Raby.

Officials probing the March 11 crash said they do not believe the Mount Brydges, Ont., man was involved in any criminal behavior that could be cited as a cause for the rush-hour accident on the downtown stretch of Thruway.

"He told me he was driving 50 to 55 mph, and I have no reason to doubt that. I don't think he could have done much more than that, given traffic conditions," Raby said.

Preliminary findings have shown that the rear bumper of the van, containing five of the six people who perished, crushed the gasoline tank mounted to the center of that vehicle's rear chassis.

The bumper was propelled forward by the impact of the tractor-trailer and investigators, in explaining how the fire started, said they do not believe it is realistic to expect a fuel tank to withstand that type of pressure.

Forth, Raby said, was cooperative during an interview earlier this week and chose to provide his account of what happened without a lawyer present.

"He was totally cooperative, and you could see he was upset. His eyes swelled up when he told how he got out of his truck right after the accident and saw the fire," Raby said.

Forth indicated he would rather not discuss the case until the investigation is completed.

"I'm just hanging in there, waiting to see if everyone concurs," he said, declining to comment further.

Federal highway officials are expected to make recommendations on how to improve the safety of that section of the Thruway within a month.

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