Alcohol and drugs have been ruled out as possible factors in the crash that killed a Wilson husband and wife seated in an Amherst restaurant Saturday night with their 13-year-old son, authorities said Monday.
Amherst police say they are now focusing on the mechanics of the 2008 Chrysler Town & Country minivan driven by Beverly Kasmore-Torbert, 76, of the Town of Tonawanda.
Kasmore-Torbert was pulling into a parking space at Cheeburger Cheeburger on the 1500 block of Niagara Falls Boulevard at about 9:30 p.m. when her van accelerated, jumped over a slight elevation separating the parking lot from a walkway and crashed through the front of the restaurant, pinning the Bennett family and a waitress against a wall, police said.
If a certified auto mechanic and a review of the vehicle's crash data recorder determine the van was in proper working order, police say they will then focus on human error as a cause.
At this point, however, early indications are that the deaths of Joseph Bennett, 56, and his wife, Kathryn Bennett, 52, were the result of a tragic accident.
"It looks that way," said Amherst police Capt. Patrick M. McKenna, commander of the Accident Investigation Unit. "But we are still not done with our investigation."
A tearful Kasmore-Torbert told The Buffalo News late Monday she has been advised not to discuss the accident, but she did say, "I have love for those people," referring to the Bennetts.
When Kathryn Bennett was a young teenager growing up in the Niagara County Town of Wilson, her mother died in an accident when an elderly Newfane woman drove past a stop sign at a rural intersection and slammed into the car Barbara Russo was driving. Her daughters, Kathryn and Renee, were in the car.
"It was a tragic car accident in the early 1970s. Kathy's mother was driving a car and killed by an elderly woman driver at the intersection of Ide and Beebe roads. The driver blew a stop sign," said Lisa Stephens, a childhood friend of Kathryn Bennett. "What are the odds of this kind of thing happening to the same family?"
Stephens was quick to add that Wilson is still struggling to come to terms with Saturday's crash and that its collective heart goes out to the Bennetts' 13-year-old son, Matthew, who was discharged Monday from Women & Children's Hospital, where he was treated for a collapsed lung.
"Everybody's heart is heavy, and we're keeping Matthew in our thoughts and prayers," Stephens said.
Gigi Sherrie, a close friend of Kathryn Bennett, said a number of Joseph Bennett's relatives from Dansville were at Matthew's bedside, ranging from his half brother, Rick, 36, to aunts, uncles and grandparents.
"Matthew has a loving support system, they are all about Matthew. I saw it firsthand at the hospital," Sherrie said.
The Rev. Robert A. Wozniak, pastor of the Bennetts' church, St. Brendan on the Lake Catholic Faith Community, also spent a number of hours in the hospital assisting the family, Sherrie added.
Accident investigators returned to the crash scene Monday to attempt to locate video surveillance tapes from other area businesses in the plaza that may have recorded the accident, according to McKenna.
Police are also submitting a request to the state's Department of Motor Vehicles for a "driver review." If the DMV approves it, Kasmore-Torbert would be medically evaluated to determine if she is capable of driving. If that proves to be the case, she would then be interviewed by the DMV's testing and investigation unit and given a road test, a DMV spokesman said Monday.
McKenna pointed out that a similar request by the Amherst police was made earlier last week when a 64-year-old man crashed his car into the front doors of a Walgreens drugstore on Kensington Avenue near Harlem Road.
On the question of whether age may have played a factor in Saturday's accident, the captain said that would be a tough call to make.
"I think it is easy to state older drivers seem to be involved in these types of things," he said, adding that many people not advanced in age cause motor vehicle accidents as well. "Where do you draw the line on the age? To blame an age group is hard. If these accidents primarily involved people 90 and older, well then you would focus on that group."
Kelly Weber, 20, the waitress, was taken to Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital in Amherst with minor injuries and was later discharged.
At Cheeburger Cheeburger, the restaurant remains temporarily closed but is expected to reopen in about a week.
"We can't send out enough condolences to make a difference. We are more than heartbroken for the little boy," said Christine Hinderliter, manager of the restaurant.
Cheeburger Cheeburger, a nationwide franchise, is also looking into establishing some type of assistance for Matthew, Hinderliter said.
Funeral arrangements for the Bennetts are being handled by Hindle Funeral Home, 271 Main St., Dansville. Calling hours will be 2 to 7 p.m. Friday. A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Saturday in St. Mary Catholic Church, 40 Elizabeth St., Dansville.
The family has asked that no flowers be purchased and instead that donations go to a fund established for Matthew Bennett, in care of Gloria Kreiley, 5 Perrys Way, Dansville, NY 14437.
Also, plans are being made for a local memorial service in the Wilson community at a date to be announced.