Two women and a 2-year-old boy died Sunday when an Arizona Public Service truck crossed the centerline on Highway 260 and slammed head-on into their car with enough force to plow it 50 feet back down the highway.
Seconds before the collision, the truck narrowly missed another car driven by Pine resident Marcia Swearengen, who saw the truck zig-zagging toward her across the highway in time to slam on her brakes and veer off to the side of the road.
"He looked like he was up on two wheels," Swearengen said Monday. "There was no question that he was out of control."
The driver of the truck, 53-year-old John Victor Noack of Payson, was booked into the Gila County Jail Sunday on three charges of manslaughter and one charge of aggravated assault.
Investigators suspect that alcohol or drugs were involved in the accident, Department of Public Safety Sgt. John Whetten said Tuesday. Noack was tested for drugs and alcohol after the accident, and DPS officers are awaiting the results of the blood test.
Investigators closed the highway between Star Valley and Christopher Creek for an hour and a half while rescue workers cut their way through the wreckage of the compact Ford Escort to save a fourth passenger, a 4-year-old girl who was strapped in a child car seat.
The girl, Shavanah Tsipai of Keams Canyon, Ariz., was air-evacuated to Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix, where she was treated for a broken left leg and minor cuts and bruises, DPS Sgt. John Whetten said Monday. She is in good condition, he said.
Her mother, 27-year-old Karyn Begay, who was in the front passenger seat, and 2-year-old brother, Anfernee Tsipai, who was sleeping next to his sister in the back seat, were not wearing restraints and were killed instantly.
The driver of the car, Begay's 35-year-old cousin, Pauline Ann Jeffrey, also of Keams Canyon, died a short time later before she could be taken to the hospital.
Jeffrey wasn't wearing a seat belt either, Whetten said, but seat belts probably wouldn't have saved the two women in the front, who were crushed when the steel bumper of the APS truck drove the engine of the car into the front seat.
Noack, who has worked at APS for 27 years and driven this type of bucket truck for more than a decade, wasn't injured in the accident, which happened shortly before 5 p.m. while the highway was thick with weekend visitors trying to return home. Motorists heading out of the high country toward Payson were backed up more than four miles to Little Green Valley.
Traffic was later opened to one-lane for two and a half more hours while Department of Public Safety officers investigated the accident and tow-truck operators cleared the highway.
Driver reportedly overcorrected
According to investigators, this is how the accident happened:
Noack, who was driving east, drifted three feet off the right side of the highway onto the dirt shoulder, steered back onto the pavement at highway speed and overcorrected. His truck teetered onto its left two tires and careened into the east lane, narrowly missing the car driven by Marcia Swearengen, who saw the truck coming and slammed on her brakes.
"I hit the brakes the second I saw him because it was obvious he was out of control," she said from her Pine home Monday. "He was swerving all the way from one side of the road to the other."
Noack overcorrected back into the east lane, rocking the top-heavy bucket truck onto its two right tires. The truck righted itself, began spinning counterclockwise and slid into the west lane, crashing into Jeffrey's car 100 yards east of Dealer's Choice Road.
The collision knocked the car 50 feet backwards, but no other cars were hit.
Swearengen, who was with her son, hit her brakes and veered to the north side of the road to miss the truck.
"It was really close," she said. "The skid marks, which aren't even at the edges of the vehicles, were two feet apart. We were amazed that he missed us. We were like 'He missed us! We're alive! He missed us!'"
Swearengen swerved back onto the pavement to miss a tree and spun 180 degrees in the roadway. The car stopped in the middle of the highway facing east, the direction they had been coming from.
"We were really lucky," she said. "We're just happy to be alive and are praying for those who aren't."
This is the second highway accident in two months caused by a local APS driver. In June, another APS driver allowed his truck to drift onto the shoulder of Highway 87 just north of the East Verde Bridge. The driver, who was traveling north, overcorrected, and his truck spun around and glanced off a small Plymouth sedan that was traveling in the opposite direction. There were only minor injuries.
Drivers get training
All APS drivers are trained every year in defensive driving techniques, Payson APS Manager Jim Spencer said.
"This is a horrible tragedy, and speaking for the company, our thoughts and prayers are with the family of the victims involved," he said. "The investigation is ongoing, and we're cooperating fully with law enforcement agents in their investigation."
Noack was released from jail Monday on $60,000 bond. The charges will now be forwarded to the Gila County Attorney's office, which will consider filing formal complaints against the driver.