In a near deadly car versus ambulance collision in the early morning hours of March 11, two EMT volunteers from Key Peninsula’s Fire District 16 and a staff paramedic were injured while transporting a Lakebay resident to a hospital. The collision occurred at approximately 3:14 a.m. at the intersection of an infamous corner on State Route 302 frequently referred to as “the corner of death” by local residents and law enforcement officials alike.
Although injured themselves, members of the Key Peninsula ambulance crew were able to get Lakebay resident Christine Smith out of the vehicle that had struck them, administer life-saving care and put her on a back board before another ambulance got to the scene.
According to FD-16 Division Chief Chuck West, “Emergency room doctors at St. Joseph’s Hospital stated that it was very fortunate for Smith that she received the emergency life-saving care from the professionals already at the scene at the time the accident occurred.”
Firefighters and paramedics from Kitsap, Mason and Pierce counties responded to the scene, according to FD-16. Smith, 53, was a passenger in a Chevy Tahoe traveling southbound on 118th Avenue NW driven by her husband, Robert Smith. According to Washington State Patrol officials, he failed to obey a stop sign and the SUV was struck on its passenger side by the Key Peninsula Medic One ambulance, which was headed eastbound on SR-302.
The patient in the ambulance at the time of the collision, a Lakebay man en route to an area hospital when the SUV collided with the ambulance, received minor injuries. He was later transported to St. Joseph’s Hospital by a Gig Harbor ambulance. Robert Smith, 49, was transported to Harrison Hospital in Bremerton with minor injuries, and later taken to Pierce County Jail and booked on two counts of vehicular assault, including one count for the injury of his wife.
In a press release, WSP reported, “According to witnesses of the collision, Smith did not slow or stop at the stop sign crossing directly into the path of the oncoming ambulance.” Troopers at the scene believe “alcohol was a contributing factor in this tragic and preventable collision.” The highway was shut down for more than five hours while authorities investigated the scene.
The driver of the ambulance, EMT Dean Junell, had the lights and sirens activated and spotted the approaching SUV before the impact, thus enabling him to warn the crew in back to brace for the accident. According to West, paramedic Michael Riegle was just about ready to connect his patient to the heart monitor when the impact occurred. EMT Andrew Tilley, of Fox Island, stayed in the ambulance with the original patient while Riegle and Junell “dug through ambulance debris,” in order to find the equipment to provide emergency care to the injured couple.
West said, “I am very proud of the ambulance crew and the way they acted under extreme emergency conditions. The men had to be reminded that they were also patients and needed to be hospitalized.” They were transported to a hospital with minor injuries and released.
Riegle and Junell, both of Port Orchard, were back to work by March 20; at press time Tilley was expected to return to his volunteer post soon. Junell and Tilley are unpaid resident volunteers, each working two days per month while also holding other jobs. They are part of an in-house training program for those interested in a career with the fire department. West said the department is looking for more resident volunteers.
As for the fate of the ambulance, West said, “Insurance investigators are still working on repair/replacement estimates and the cab is completely totaled, but there is a possibility of taking the back box off and reusing that.” The cost is expected to be almost as expensive as buying a new ambulance, and while it was necessary to bring in another ambulance that night, it was the lack of staff to drive and respond to emergencies that had West worried, not the lack of fire equipment.
“Bringing in another ambulance is not that unusual, but a more immediate problem is shortage of trained firefighting staff,” West said, noting that Reigle was the only paramedic on shift that evening.
Next month: A closer look at this dangerous stretch of State Route 302, where lives have been lost.