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4-VEHICLE PILEUP DOWNTOWN REVIVES I-190 NIGHTMARES

Six years ago, the state responded to a horrific crash on the elevated section of the Niagara Thruway in downtown Buffalo by widening the roadway's shoulders.

The work apparently wasn't enough.

On Monday, along that same stretch of highway by the Church Street entrance ramp, a four-vehicle crash looked like a repeat of past fatal accidents.

But there was one big difference: No one died.

State Trooper Phil Harris, parked in the northbound 4-foot-wide shoulder about 9:25 a.m., was waiting for a tow truck to remove a pickup truck involved in an alcohol-related accident when an approaching waste-disposal truck from Lewiston slammed into the rear of the state patrol car. That set off a chain-reaction crash, authorities said.

In 1992, 7,000-pound steel coils fell off a southbound tractor-trailer and bounced into the northbound lanes by the Church Street ramp, killing four people.

And in 1998, the Thruway's southbound lanes -- about 100 feet from the latest crash -- were the scene of a collision and fire that killed six people when a tractor-trailer transporting new cars struck a passenger van.

That fiery crash six years ago prompted Thruway officials to make design changes and widen the shoulders on both sides of the roadway from 19 inches to 4 feet.

Thruway officials late Monday said they plan to take another look at this stretch of highway.

"Although this unfortunate incident has brought this area of the Thruway to light, the Thruway remains one of the safest highways in the nation. In 1997 and 1998, when the most recent rehabilitation project was completed on this area, the width of the bridge was increased to meet current standards . . .," spokeswoman Farah Kampf said, referring to an elevated portion of the highway. "However, we will look into the area for further consideration."

The earlier widening was not enough to convince police who patrol the Thruway that the change made the road any safer.

"We don't stop cars on this stretch of the Thruway. It's not safe, but we had to come up and investigate an accident that had already occurred," State Police Sgt. Brian Guise said. "The trooper was waiting for a tow truck. He couldn't leave the vehicles in the accident unattended."

The fiery crash in 1998 happened under similar circumstances. Two motorists had pulled over to exchange information after they were involved in a fender-bender.

On Monday, Buffalo firefighters -- the first to arrive on the scene and begin rescue operations -- were amazed that there were only minor injuries.

"This is a remarkable situation in that nobody was killed," Engine 1 Firefighter Vincent Hornberger said. "About 100 feet from here in the southbound lanes, six people were burned to death six years ago. Before that, we had people killed when steel coils came loose and fell from a truck."

Several state troopers shared the firefighters' amazement and could not help wincing each time they looked at the sight of Harris' mangled patrol car.

"It is amazing nobody was seriously hurt," Guise said. "It could have been a lot worse."

Christel Kasprzak, 47, of Depew, happened to glance in the rearview mirror of her 1995 minivan seconds before the crash.

"I saw the truck coming. 'How's he going to get between the trooper's car and my van? There's no way,' I thought," said Kasprzak, who was driving in the center lane.

Most of the trooper's patrol car was crushed by the Modern Disposal tanker truck, which is used to haul waste from portable toilets. The truck hit the rear of the patrol car on the driver's side and then ran over it.

The out-of-control truck continued down the northbound lanes and struck the passenger side of Kasprzak's van, which then hit a 1990 sedan.

The sedan flipped on its passenger side, and Kasprzak said she saw a "blur" as their vehicles slammed into the concrete median. The vehicles came to a stop about 20 feet short of the truck, which also hit the median and spun around with its front end facing south toward the other three vehicles.

Chunks of road surface were torn up, and the center median was blackened by tire markings. Perhaps the scariest sight was the truck's massive four-wheel rear axle, which had broken loose and come to rest in the middle lane in a gap between the other wrecks.

The truck's tank did not rupture, though it started dripping oil.

Kasprzak was able to get out of her van uninjured. The two men in the sedan -- driver Brandon Eck, 24, of Attica, and Luis Morales, 19, whose address was unavailable -- were also able to climb out of their car, which was on its side.

The driver of the Modern Disposal truck, David Booth, 37, of Niagara Falls, also emerged from his vehicle, witnesses said. He was taken to Millard Fillmore Hospital for treatment of injuries that were considered minor and released, according to police.

Booth was ticketed for equipment violations on the truck, police said, and will be charged with failing to reduce speed in the case of a special hazard. An investigation was continuing.

Andrew Stewart, 44, of Hudson Street, was identified as the man Harris charged with drunken driving. Harris was sitting behind the wheel and Stewart was in the front passenger seat of the patrol car when the crash occurred.

Stewart was treated in Erie County Medical Center and released, according to State Police. Harris, who police said suffered a broken left hand, was released from the ECMC emergency room.

Stewart's 1991 pickup truck, authorities said, had collided with a car driven by Anthony Ramos, 58, of Hamburg, who was uninjured. But Ramos was standing on the side of the road and suffered a broken foot in the subsequent accident. He was treated at ECMC and released.

The Thruway was closed for about four hours at the scene.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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