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May 28th 2006

who is to blame in the hufnagel tragedy?

the lexington newspaper that humbly occupies the domain, has completely missed the point in one article on the tragic death of stephanie hufnagel. hufnagel, who was married and eight months pregnant, was killed by a 5,000 pound slab of falling concrete while she was on her way to work on may 16. the slab was knocked loose from a parking garage wall two stories above her by a woman parking a ford f-150 truck.

if you were a journalist, given these facts, there are several things you would want to look into. you would want to look at the truck and the driver to figure out what was going on there. did the truck have a mechanical failure or was the driver being careless or reckless? you might also want to look at the concrete slab and the construction of the parking structure. was it code compliant? did a crucial component fail?

thus far, any of these elements (truck, driver, parking structure) could equally be to blame. but let’s add some more facts:

1. a picture, which i’ll call exhibit a:

devona jones struck the wall of her parking stall at approximately 12 miles per hour. the lexington herald-leader thinks the garage\'s construction might be to blame.

notice the truck’s front wheels hanging over the edge. the driver didn’t just bump the wall, she slammed into it like a battering ram and kept going after she broke the 5,000 pound wall loose.

2. the truck’s airbags deployed when it struck the wall, which, according to police, means its driver pulled into the parking spot at or above 12 miles per hour (17.5 feet/second). the first reports indicated the driver may have been traveling at 15 mph (an astonishing 22 feet/second)

3. the driver’s excuse:

Jones said she was pulling into a parking space and had stopped to orient herself and straighten up her vehicle, when the truck kept going and hit the wall, according to Simms.

“The next thing she recalled was being assisted out of her truck,” he said. [source]

first, did she bring the truck to a stop? or did the truck keep going? if that was her statement to police, that seems to be pretty inconsistent. if she came to a full stop, i do not understand how her truck could accelerate to 12 miles per hour from a dead stop over a distance of mere inches. if she didn’t come to a full stop, but let her 5000+ pound behemoth hurtle into a parking space at 17-22 feet per second, then she shouldn’t be surprised at the result. in any case, devona jones’ statement is the piece of the puzzle that needs more scrutinizing. but jim warren and sarah vos of the herald-leader think we need a full investigation into why the garage wall failed.

Earlier this week, the Herald-Leader began inquiring about what tests had been made on the concrete, but found that investigators didn’t seem to know where the 5,000-pound panel was.

Only after numerous inquiries by the newspaper over three days did Jim Blair, TIC’s attorney in South Carolina, determine that the panel had been broken into pieces by work crews following the accident, and dumped under a tree at a Department of Streets and Roads facility off Old Frankfort Pike.

Before Wednesday, several city agency directors and Blair had told reporters that they didn’t know where the panel was or what happened to it. Two people even suggested that it had been brought to the landfill.

Several structural engineering experts who specialize in forensic investigations said they would like to examine the panel before it was broken, not after.

that’s great, but the panel is not the issue in the investigation. the panel will probably become the issue in the tort case that is sure to follow, because it would bring in the deep pocket of the parking garage owners (TIC). but to find out who is really to blame, they will need to look at the glaring facts, specifically ms. jones’ story and her “blackout” excuse. local authorities obtained either obtained a warrant or the driver’s permission to access the electronic data recorder from the truck:

Police have also downloaded information from a crash data recorder inside the Ford. The recorder is quickly becoming standard on all cars. It is a 4-inch square metal box that records the car’s speed, engine RPMs, how far down the accelerator was pressed, whether the brakes were applied, whether the driver’s seatbelt was buckled and what warning lights were on — all from about five seconds before impact.

Police will seek assistance from experts to interpret the recorder’s data. They expect to have those results in the next week or two. [source]

our prayers go out to the hufnagel family, who lost two loved ones on may 16. especially tragic is that stephanie had an 18-month old daughter, raigann, who may grow up without as much as a memory of her mother. contact a chase branch if you would like to contribute to a scholarship fund for raigann.

see also: amy wilson

7 Responses to “who is to blame in the hufnagel tragedy?”

  1. doug

    What a tragedy.

  2. Amazing BAD reporting on the part of the newspaper. Sheer negligence on the part of the Department of Streets and Roads.

  3. […] *who is to blame in the hufnagel tragedy? (criticizing authorities for assuming a weak parking structure was at fault, when all evidence points to a reckless driver) […]

  4. […] who is to blame in the hufnagel tragedy? (hint: the driver. she slammed her ford f-150 into a parking garage wall at a maniacal 22 feet per second, knocking a 2.5 ton slab of concrete onto a pregnant woman walking on the sidewalk below) […]

  5. Malcolm S.

    I don’t think anyone is “to blame.” It was an accident. A terrible one, yes, but an accident all the same. No one wanted this to happen, so pointing the finger is useless. What really matters most is preventing something like this from happening again.

  6. travis

    I don’t think anyone is “to blame.” It was an accident. …No one wanted this to happen, so pointing the finger is useless.

    in the legal system, they have a term for killing someone without wanting it to happen. it is “manslaughter” and people are charged with it and convicted all the time.

    but the point of my post was not to indict the driver. very simply, i was shocked that no one investigated that angle. local journalists were frothing at the mouth over the destroyed concrete slab, but seemed to have no questions for the maniac behind the wheel.

    which brings me to your conclusion:

    What really matters most is preventing something like this from happening again.

    i wholeheartedly agree with you! one thing authorities and responsible journalists can do to prevent this from happening again is find out why the driver did what she did. does she suffer from chronic blackouts or have some other condition that makes her a danger on the road? why did she pull into a stall in close-quarters parking garage at 20 mph? can she see okay? depending on her answers to these questions (as well as those i posed in my original post) they should see about taking away her license (or, at the very least, make her trade in her truck for a prius — so she’ll do less damage next time). looking into how the accident happened would be productive — such as to help prevent future accidents –not just to lay blame.

  7. […] who is to blame in the hufnagel tragedy? (criticizing authorities for assuming a weak parking structure was at fault, when all evidence points to a reckless driver) […]