A five-vehicle injury collision tied up Labor Day traffic on Highway 260 for six hours Friday.
Heroics and incredibly good luck kept the accident from being much worse than it was, according to one of the investigating officers, Greg LeMoine of the Department of Public Safety.
The accident took place near milepost 277, in the vicinity of the Arizona Department of Transportation yard and Colcord Road, at about 6:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30. Traffic was backed up from Christopher Creek to the Beeline Highway, then south past Mazatzal Casino.
A westbound truck tractor, with a full, double trailer-load overheated its brakes between the Woods Canyon Lake turnoff and Christopher Creek. The truck became a runaway and rear-ended a westbound pickup truck, pushing it into another, smaller truck tractor.
The pickup rebounded off the second truck tractor and began to rotate, hitting a concrete construction barrier, going into the eastbound lane, where it was hit in the side by two other vehicles. The driver of the smaller truck tractor realized the larger truck was a runaway, so intentionally allowed it to ram into the rear of his vehicle to slow and stop it before it reached a crowded camping area above Christopher Creek, LeMoine said.
The two trucks traveled another half-mile before being able to stop, the officer said.
"What that driver did was very heroic," LeMoine said of the driver of the second truck.
James Downs, 43, of Phoenix was driving the runaway truck, which weighed 80,000 pounds fully loaded.
The pickup rear-ended by Downs was driven by Ralph Tsosie, 52, of Red Valley, Ariz.
William Potts Jr., 34, was driving the smaller truck tractor, which was designed to haul mobile homes.
Neither Downs or Potts were injured. Tsosie suffered only a fractured clavicle and was air-lifted to Scottsdale Healthcare Hospital, where he was treated and released.
LeMoine said Tsosie actually exited his vehicle after the crash, said a few prayers and asked for a Bible. The vehicle, a new Chevy crew cab, had been struck five times between the two truck tractors, the concrete barrier and the two vehicles in the eastbound lane, the officer said. After hitting the concrete barrier, Tsosie's vehicle was airborne for a time, LeMoine said.
The first eastbound vehicle to hit Tsosie's pickup was 1999 Ford F150 pickup, driven by Diana Martin, 53, of Glendale. She had one passenger, her husband, Randy, 57.
Diana Martin was air-lifted to Scottsdale Healthcare with facial injuries and head trauma, along with a possible fracture to her left foot. She is facing several surgeries, LeMoine said.
Randy Martin suffered soft tissue injuries to his neck and back.
The second eastbound vehicle to hit Tsosie was a 2001 Chevy Suburban, driven by Christian Fitzpatrick, 41, of Chandler. He had five passengers, his wife, Mary, 41, and four children.
Fitzpatrick suffered neck pain and was transported to the Payson Regional Medical Center by another motorist. Mary Fitzpatrick suffered a possible fracture to her left leg and seatbelt injuries, she was treated and released from the Payson hospital.
All four of the children also had seatbelt injuries, and one was transported to Maricopa County Medical Center for observation for possible internal injuries. He has since been released, LeMoine said.
The officer said after the runaway truck was inspected by several specialists with DPS, it was determined the overheated brakes were due to operator error, not any malfunction of the vehicle.
The first emergency personnel on the scene were from Christopher Creek, followed by those from Forest Lakes. LeMoine said he had to drive six miles on the wrong side of the road to get to the scene.
While the traffic was tied up for six hours, the road was actually opened in relatively short order considering the extent of the accident.
LeMoine said one lane was partially opened within two hours and fully open in three hours. It was just the volume of traffic on the road that kept things tied up for six hours, he said, adding most of the motorists caught on the road remained relatively calm.
"The digital signs were up, warning people about it, so that helped," LeMoine said.
No citations have been issued. The accident is still under investigation.
None of the injuries were believed to be life threatening and all but one of the victims has already been released, LeMoine said.