State Trooper C.J. Aiken's vehicle suffered front-end damage.
The runaway Mazda suffered front and rear end damage as a trooper rammed it into a guardrail.
A week after two teenagers survived a harrowing runaway car incident on I-81, questions about what caused the car to accelerate to speeds up to 110mph linger, but according to one local mechanic, a simple maneuver might have spared the teens the terror of leaping from a moving vehicle: turning the car off.
"That's the first thing I'd do is flip the key off," says Joe Baber, owner and head mechanic at Peacock Auto Service at the corner on Meade Avenue. Baber, who did not examine the 1998 Mazda Protege involved in the incident but is familiar with that make, model and year, says its mechanical throttle cable could have been at least part of the acceleration issue. "I've seen it get sticky," he says of other similar vehicles he's worked on. "When it slides back, it could get stuck."
Irvine-California-based Mazda spokesperson Jeremy Barnes says he's unaware of any similar issues with any model Mazdas, and notes that maintenance is important for all vehicles, and especially older models. Barnes also says that the brakes of a vehicle should always override the gas.
"In this case, I have no way of knowing," Barnes says. "The most important thing is that the occupants are unhurt."
Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller says the investigation into the cause of the acceleration is ongoing, but there's little question that the incident could have had a tragic outcome, and both the driver involved and the passenger say they feared death as they hurtled past traffic on the interstate.
"I was panicking," the driver, 19-year-old Harrisonburg resident Amy Guevara told reporters gathered for an April 11 press conference in Staunton. Guevara says she'd spent the morning of April 9 shopping at Target and having lunch with her mother before picking up her friend, 19-year-old Sean Wies, with whom she had a ceramics class at Blue Ridge Community College, about 15 minutes south of Harrisonburg in Weyers Cave.
The trip down I-81 toward class was initially uneventful, both Guevara and Wies recalled, but as they neared milepost 235 and their exit, Guevara discovered the car wouldn't slow and the accelerator seemed to be stuck.
In a nearly 17-minute 911 call made by Wies and released by State Police, a dispatcher makes various suggestions, and among the first is to turn off the ignition. Wies says that isn't possible because a truck is following too closely.
State Police arrive on the scene within minutes and attempt to clear the road of other cars as Guevara follows the dispatchers' suggestions to pull up on the emergency brake and shift the car into neutral, something Baber says should have prevented further acceleration as well.
"It didn't work," Guevara tells reporters. The dispatcher doesn't mention turning off the ignition again.
On the 911 tape, as the car approaches milemarker 217, Wies's end of the call goes silent as Guevara steers into the grassy median, she told reporters, because she feared she was going to hit cars ahead. Slowed by the grass, both Guevara and Wies open their doors and leap out.
The danger wasn't over, however.
State Trooper C.J. Aikens, also a chaplain with the State Police, had been following the runaway Mazda, and he says he watched in disbelief as both teens ejected from the still moving car. Wies struggled to free himself from his seatbelt, Aikens recalls, and briefly dragged before dropping to the ground. Guevara "cartwheeled" after leaping at what Aikens estimates was approximately 40mph.
"I thought, 'She's really hurt,'" he says.
The Mazda didn't stop. Now driverless, it accelerated again, and Aikens says it started heading across the grassy median towards northbound traffic.
"I had to do something," he told gathered reporters. Speeding into the median himself, he used his unmarked vehicle to ram the Mazda back into the southbound lanes, then bumped it further until it stopped against the guardrail. Police turned the ignition off without incident, and Aiken says the impact of what had just happened began to sink in.
"I'm a Christian," he says, "so it's the grace of God that no one was hurt."
Correction: The image of a damaged front end shows the unmarked silver police vehicle. A photo of the damaged silver Mazda has been added and captions have been corrected.–ed
The survival of the two teenagers involved in the April 9 runaway car incident on I-81 may still be considered miraculous, but, according to revised information from Virginia State Police today, it was more in keeping with the laws of physics. Still, as revealed in the now released 911 call the teenagers made, it was a harrowing, bizarre experience for the young drivers, one that could have been tragic for other drivers if it wasn't for the quick thinking of a state trooper.
A Virginia State Police press release on April 9, just three hours after the incident and containing information the Hook confirmed with State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller, claimed the 1998 Silver Mazda Protege driven by 19-year-old Amy D. Guevara of Harrisonburg was traveling at somewhere between 100 and 110 mph when Guevara and her passenger, Sean Wies, also 19 and of Harrisonburg, leaped from the moving vehicle onto pavement, somehow surviving with only minor injuries.
Information from the troopers involved given to her on April 10, says Geller, reveals that Guevara's car was actually
in the grassy median around mile marker 217 and had slowed to between 30 and 40mph when the teens bailed, allowing their survival.
Wies jumped from the front seat of the car and was dragged a slight distance before finally being able to break free from the car, Geller says.
Once they'd exited the car, Geller now says, the vehicle re-accelerated and was headed across the median and into northbound traffic when State Trooper C.J. Aikens used his cruiser to ram the driverless Mazda and force it into the guardrail, where it stopped.
According to Geller, the police vehicles involved in the operation were not equipped with dash-cams, but a nearly 17-minute 911 call, which came in at 12:32pm, reveals the teens' increasingly urgent attempts to slow the car as they traveled from milepost 232 to 217 while maneuvering around traffic and worrying about being struck by the trucks that are a staple of the north-south I-81 corridor.
"Amy, it's okay. Stay calm," says Wies, whose own voice rises only slightly on several occasions as the dispatcher offers various suggestions for slowing or stopping the car. Guevara's panic is evident in at least one scream heard on tape. The car could not be shifted into a lower gear or neutral, Wies told the dispatcher, and applying the emergency brake had little effect on the car, which continued to accelerate.
When the call begins, Wies tells the dispatcher they're traveling at approximately 50mph but are being followed closely by a truck he's concerned will strike them if they slow too suddenly. As the Mazda travels south downhill, its speed increases, although Wies says Guevara is pressing the brake. The highest speed Wies cites on the tape is 90mph, but according to Geller, the trooper who was following behind says the Mazda did top 100mph during the incident.
Trooper Aikens, who performed the maneuver that eventually stopped the car, was treated at Augusta Health and released. Wies was also treated for non-life-threatening injuries.
Aikens will hold a press conference on April 11 to share further details.