Wheels of misfortune: Far from home, Lethal wrecks again
It's happened again. Eighteen months after an Albemarle County man was nearly killed in a collision with a Lethal Wrecker tow truck on Route 250 near Keswick, another man has been critically injured by a Lethal wrecker, this time near Durham, North Carolina.
According to Durham police, the accident occurred at 8:50pm on June 6, on Interstate 85, the highway that runs southwest from Richmond through Durham and Charlotte and ends near Montgomery, Alabama.
Brian Eugene Thomas, 48, a driver for New Jersey-based Jevic Transportation, was traveling north in a semi-truck when two tires came hurtling towards him. The tires came off the rear axle of a southbound Lethal Wrecker tow truck driven by Charlottesville resident Harry Scott Fox, crossed the median, and struck the driver's side window of Thomas' truck, which then hit the barriers beside the southbound lanes and overturned.
Thomas, who was transporting 30 barrels of the chemical benzyl chloride, was taken to Duke University Hospital where he was initially listed in critical condition. The road was closed for hours as the Durham Fire Department Hazardous Materials Team removed the chemical barrels.
For one man, this accident may be a reminder of his own personal pain. As the Hook detailed in its August 31, 2006 cover story "Lethal Wreckage," on the morning of January 27, 2006, Peter Weatherly, a local teacher and Little League coach, was in the eastbound turn lane of Route 250 at Route 22 when a westbound Lethal tow truck driven by Floyd Dean careered across the line. It smashed into Weatherly's green Honda Accord, crumpling the hood, shattering Weatherly's leg and pelvis, and most seriously, rupturing his aorta– an injury few survive. Weatherly was fortunate that his organs were compressed against his aorta and stemmed the bleeding, allowing doctors extra time to save his life.
Dean was found guilty of reckless driving, and Weatherly sued Lethal, Morris, and Dean for $20 million, alleging negligence and settled last fall with Lethal for an undisclosed sum.
As for Thomas, a Baltimore resident with no listed phone number, two weeks after the accident, he remains in intensive care at Duke, although his condition has been upgraded from critical to serious. He has no phone in his room, and a nurse declined to reveal any details of his injuries, but said he would not be returning the Hook's calls. Messages left for his family at the nurses' station were not returned, and a Jevic spokesperson did not return the Hook's repeated calls by press time.
Lethal driver Fox suffered only minor injuries to his knee and was treated at the scene and released, according to Durham police spokesperson Kammie Michael, who says no charges have been filed in the accident but that an investigation is ongoing. Officers from the North Carolina DMV Motor Carrier Enforcement were called to perform an inspection of the Lethal tow truck, but at press time the results of that inspection had not been released.
There is no number listed for Fox, and Lethal owner George Morris, reached for comment, had little to say about the accident or about his driver's reason for using a Lethal truck so far away.
"Call North Carolina," he said before hanging up.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, truck wheel separations are rare. A 1992 study showed that of 349,000 annual truck accidents, fewer than 1,050– just 0.3 percent– resulted from tires coming off. When a truck's tire does come off, though, it does so with damaging force.
In 1991, a cargo van truck lost one of its 365-pound wheels, which then smashed through the windshield of a school bus carrying 46 fourth-graders and their chaperones, killing two children and one adult. That and two other fatal accidents that year prompted the NTSB study.
More recently, according to a June 4 article in the Seattle Times, at least five recent truck-wheel accidents– several fatal– have Washington state authorities investigating. The NTSB study identifies likely causes to be issues with maintenance including inadequate inspection of wheel fasteners and lubrication of bearings and "failure by carriers and mechanics to adhere to recommended maintenance guidelines."
Whatever the cause of the Lethal wheel loss, the accident could potentially create another legal woe for a company that's had plenty of legal troubles over the last five years, including finding itself defending a lawsuit by the City of Charlottesville and court-approved settlement that demanded the company reform its towing policies and refund nearly two dozen overcharged drivers.
As for the injured Weatherly, after spending most of a year wheelchair-bound, he has regained the ability to walk unaided and was able to move back into his Scottsville-area home last fall. He has returned to coaching young baseball players, though he is still unable to work full time.
"I'm just happy to be here," says Weatherly, "grateful for every day."
He says he hopes Thomas will be as lucky.