Published November 04. 2007 4:00AM Updated December 15. 2009 1:56PM
Thomas Dugas was working at Electric Boat in Groton Friday morning when he saw news of a fatal crash that had occurred on Interstate 95 in East Lyme. Amid the scene of wreckage, he spotted a Mercury Grand Marquis — like the one his wife, Lu-Ann, was driving when she left the house.
Lu-Ann usually worked from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Charter Oak Federal Credit Union in Niantic, where she was head teller. But on Friday she had an appointment with the eye doctor and was running late.
“I called the credit union, and they didn't know where she was,” Dugas said. “I called all day. I called the bank. I called her cell phone,” he said. “I knew, and I prayed. I spent the rest of the day praying.”
Dugas, an electrician, said his co-workers told him to stop worrying. It was probably another car. His wife had probably just left her cell phone in the trunk.
At about 5 p.m. Friday, two police officers came to Dugas' home, located on a wooded dead-end street in East Lyme, to tell him that his wife had been killed.
“I would have exchanged my life for hers,” Dugas said.
The crash occurred at 10:19 a.m. just before Exit 75 on I-95. Peter M. Derry III, 51, of Webster, Mass., driving a tanker truck on the northbound side of the highway, drove through the center barrier, according to police, and into oncoming traffic, striking a southbound tractor-trailer and four cars.
In the moments after the crash, as firetrucks screamed to the scene, cars pulled onto the shoulder of the Route 1 overpass and people lined the bridge, looking down upon a scene that left many speechless.
The tanker truck was perpendicular on the highway, its back end in the median, facing the southbound lanes. It had rammed the side of a sedan.
The cab of the tanker was in the middle of the highway facing the opposite direction, toward the median. It was unrecognizable, crushed and ripped from its axles.
A man, later identified as James Clark, the driver of the tractor-trailer, sat in the middle of the southbound side of the highway, his legs straight in front of him. Clark appeared to be wearing jeans, which were torn up, and his legs showed. He stared ahead.
A woman was sitting in the grass under a tree on the northbound side of the highway, her face in her hands, sobbing. She was able to get up on her own and onto a stretcher.
Firefighters quickly sprayed foam onto the road, the cars and trucks, and the debris. They had already thrown blankets over the cars of the deceased to shield them from view, and sprayed over everything.
For approximately six hours, both sides of the highway were strewn with the twisted remains of the vehicles, ripped apart and crushed by the collision. Three people were sent to local hospitals. One walked away from the crash scene. Three were killed.
Derry, 51, Lu-Ann Dugas, 54, and Fred Held, 33, of 8 Pepes Farm Road in Milford, who was driving a Honda Accord, all died from multiple blunt force trauma, according to the Chief Medical Examiner's office.
Samirah Clough, 62, of 35 Story Hill Drive, Mystic —the passenger in a 2006 Audi driven by Lynn Mariani, 56, of 100 Jeremy Hill Road, Stonington — was in good condition at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital Saturday.
Mariani was treated and released as was James J. Clark, 27, of Patchogue, N.Y., who was driving the tractor-trailer. Clark and his pit bull “Tiny” were reunited Friday at The William W. Backus Hospital after both survived the crash.
John W. Hampton, 43, of 14 Prospect St., Old Lyme, was the only person to walk away from the crash. The Subaru he was driving was totaled.
Hampton was not available to speak to the press Saturday. Reached at home, Hampton's wife said he was sleeping, and the couple did not return a call placed to their home later in the day. Clough, a teacher at Cutler Middle School, and Mariani, a teacher at Fitch High School, could not be reached for comment. Clark, the tractor-trailer driver, also could not be reached for comment.
Fred Held's family also could not be reached for comment.
Reached by phone at Derry's residence Saturday in Webster, Mass., Juan Diaz, of New Hampshire, said he knew the tanker truck driver for more than 40 years, and the men were best friends. The two went fishing together often, and their families vacationed together. Diaz remembered Derry as a dedicated father of two grown sons whose three grandchildren were “his whole life.” Derry is survived by his wife, Gayle, of 22 years.
“He was very much loved by his family and friends,” Diaz said.
Derry, who originally grew up in Worcester, Mass., had been a commercial truck driver for approximately 20 years, and at one time he owned his own truck, Diaz said. He said Derry only drove day shifts, not long-haul trucking routes, and that his friend “had a very clean driving record.”
According to a September 1989 report in the Worcester Telegram-Gazette, a Peter Derry, who was 33 at the time and lived at a Worcester address, suffered minor injuries when the tractor-trailer he was driving rolled over on Route 12 in Sterling, Mass.
Northeast Carriers LLC, the owner of the tanker, has maintained a good safety record, according to state officials and federal filings. Repeated attempts to contact David A. Scott, the company's president, have been unsuccessful.
Lt. Louis J. Fusaro, commanding officer at Troop E in Montville, said police are continuing to investigate the incident, collecting evidence, reviewing 911 calls and conducting interviews.
On Friday, Fusaro said, officers mapped out the scene, photographed it and attempted to preserve as much evidence as possible.
The next step, Fusaro said, will be to conduct a thorough investigation of the vehicles to determine if there could have been any kind of mechanical failure.
Shortly before the incident, Fusaro said, motorists observed erratic operation on the part of the tanker driver. “We're very much at the beginning of this investigation. There's a lot more that needs to be done,” he said.
Sgt. Richard Crooks, East Lyme's resident state trooper, confirmed that Troop F in Westbrook had received at least one call reporting an erratic driver on Friday morning. Crooks said he was told that the Westbrook troop had “taken a report of erratic operation” but that he had not yet followed up on the information.
Phyllis Martino, an eyewitness to the accident who said she had observed the tanker truck and a northbound tractor-trailer aggressively switching lanes and passing each other, said on Saturday that she had not called 911. Martino said she had heard, too, that state police had received calls about the tanker truck driver.
Martino said on Saturday that she had gotten onto the highway in Branford and seen the tanker truck shortly thereafter.
Jeff Jacobs, a sports columnist for the Hartford Courant, was driving back from New York on Friday morning after attending a Yankees press conference a day earlier.
Jacobs said he witnessed the same aggressive driving by the northbound tanker truck and tractor-trailer truck that Martino described Friday.
“It was like two trucks going at it,” he said.
Jacobs said he was driving in the left-hand lane at a little over 70 mph when the trucks came up fast in his rear-view mirror. He pulled into the right lane — a shifting he said he saw a lot of other cars do as the trucks sped past — and the tanker truck caught his eye.
“I just remember two trucks zooming by me, and the reason I remember it was because it was a tanker,” Jacobs said. “You just don't usually see those things going that fast.”
Jacobs guessed that the trucks had passed him several minutes before the accident, which he did not witness. He was in the right lane when all the cars slammed on their brakes and said he came to a stop just before the Exit 75 off-ramp.
Jacobs said traffic got onto the off-ramp, crossed the overpass and then back onto the highway. When he looked back and saw the accident, Jacobs said he thought all vehicles involved had been traveling south and didn't connect the tanker in the southbound lane to the one he had seen heading north until reading about the accident and Martino's description of the driving.
Along the highway at Exit 74 in East Lyme, less than a half-mile from where the accident occurred, there is a stanchion with a state Department of Transportation camera.
The camera is one of 23 used to monitor traffic on I-95 between Old Saybrook and Stonington and traffic along I-395 though Montville and Norwich; the cameras are part of the state Department of Transportation's Incident Management Program.
The cameras provide a live feed to a monitoring center in Bridgeport. A spokesman from the state DOT could not be reached on Saturday, however, to learn whether the camera would have recorded the scene from the highway that morning.
The Charter Oak Federal Credit Union on Main Street in Niantic — where Lu-Ann Dugas worked for 24 years — was closed Friday and Saturday as employees mourned their beloved co-worker.
Thomas Dugas said his wife was a “wonderful lady” who was active in the community. Lu-Ann Dugas, a Waterford High School graduate, mentored children at Mary Morrison Elementary School and Pleasant Valley School in Groton, volunteered at the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center in New London and enjoyed puttering in her garden.
Dugas, formerly Lu-Ann Mathieu, married her husband in 1973 after three years of dating and a trip to Thomas Dugas' St. Bernard prom.
“I'm just completely devastated by this,” said Larry Hertell, credit union chairman.
Hertell, who said he has known Dugas 15 years, said she was an intricate part of the lives of everybody who worked at the credit union and was heavily involved in the credit union's community giving projects.
With just eight branches, Hertell said Dugas' death has been a great blow to a small community of employees — many who have worked at the same branch for decades.
“Everybody knows everybody. Everybody has worked together. We have such employee retention you wouldn't believe,” he said.
As head teller, Dugas was “kind of the mother hen,” Hertell said.
“She was really just a terrific employee,” he said.
Thomas Dugas said he hopes some good comes from the crash.
“It's a death trap,” he said of the highway. “Everybody's driving 80 miles per hour, bumper to bumper.”
Day Staff Writers M. Matthew Clark and Megan Bard contributed to this report.