A preliminary investigation indicates a Houston Fire Department ladder truck ran a red light before colliding with a pumper truck in a Montrose intersection Monday morning, a Houston Police Department spokesman said today.
Both trucks were en route to what had been reported as a possible fire in the 2100 block of San Felipe when they crashed at Westheimer and Dunlavy minutes before 11 a.m. Before overturning and coming to rest on a four-door Infiniti, the ladder truck struck a bicyclist and snapped an electric pole and tree. The collision injured 11 people, the bicyclist critically.
HPD accident investigators have interviewed the driver of the Infiniti, who said she was first in line at a red light on Dunlavy when the accident occurred, said police spokesman John Cannon.
Presumably, that means the ladder truck, approaching northbound on Dunlavy from the opposite side of the intersection, would also have had a red light, Cannon said.
“If that turns out to be the case, that driver would face a citation of failure to use due caution,” he said. Police identified the ladder truck driver as Warren Ducote.
Cannon said that police have not yet spoken with the drivers of either HFD truck, however, and stressed that the investigation into the crash is ongoing.
Also today, fire department officials announced that the initial fire report was prompted by smoke testing of sewer lines in the area.
Most seriously injured was Leigh Boone, 29, an executive assistant at the Houston Center for Photography, who was bicycling to work at the time of the accident. The car’s driver, 48-year-old Jotika Ramchandani, was able to stagger from her vehicle unaided, was treated at a local hospital and released.
Nine firefighters were taken to hospitals, but none suffered life-threatening injuries.
Two of them, both from Station 7, remained in hospitals today with broken bones, said Houston Fire Department District Chief Tommy Dowdy.
Capt. Michael Mayfield, who has been with the Fire Department for 34 years, was listed in fair condition this morning at Ben Taub General Hospital.
Brian Edwards, a 19-year veteran who was driving the pumper, was listed in good condition at Memorial Hermann Hospital.
“This is a bad day,” Dowdy said. “To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time two firetrucks have collided in Houston. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The fire department will analyze the accident, searching for information that might be useful in training.
The department also is looking into the reason for the original report at the address on San Felipe, although a fire official said today that it was not knowingly called in as a false alarm.
“It was not a prank call,” said Capt. Beda Kent. “It was not a false alarm.”
Dowdy said the pumper, loaded with 500 gallons of water and weighing 40,000 pounds, was traveling west on Westheimer. The ladder truck was heading north on Dunlavy. Dowdy said the pumper struck the ladder truck near its rear, and both vehicles came to a stop just north of the intersection.
“Whoever has the green light has the right of way,” Dowdy said. “We don’t know who had the green.”
Also at issue is the possible role an Opticom — a device mounted at intersections to regulate traffic signals as emergency vehicles approach — played in the crash.
Only Westheimer was equipped with the device, Dowdy said.
Dowdy said investigators found no skid marks.
At the sound of the crash, residents and shoppers from blocks around were drawn to the busy intersection.
“It was the loudest sound I ever heard,” said Bernard Proctor, who was among those at the scene. “It was crazy.”
Glenn Stanton, 53, a retired restaurateur who lives about a half-block away, said the collision shook his house.
“The sirens were nonstop and the power went out immediately,” he said. “It’s quite gruesome just to see the fire engine on its side, its wheels in the air like that.”
The crash also knocked out power at nearby Lanier Middle School for about an hour.
The twisted wreckage of Boone’s bicycle protruded from the truck’s giant double wheels. A woman’s shoe lay nearby.
Scrambling to help
Luis Martinez, who pulled to the side of the street to allow the ladder truck to pass, said he ran to the scene after the wreck. One fireman was partially ejected from his truck’s cab. Martinez offered to help. But, with pavement wet from leaking water and fallen power lines sparking, the firefighter warned Martinez away lest he be electrocuted.
The collision left Dunlavy blocked until after 4 p.m., when wrecker crews succeeded in righting the 80,000-pound ladder truck by using a crane and giant, inflatable air bags.
Dowdy said the ladder truck, valued at close to $1 million, had been in service about six months; the pumper, worth roughly half as much, a year.