Flying tractor-trailer wheel was 'like a missile,' says witness to fatal crash
Wallace Murphy keeps asking himself why he was spared and another man killed
Wallace Murphy keeps asking himself why his life was spared.
The 55-year-old hospital orderly was driving east on Highway 417 early Friday morning when he saw a large black object heading directly towards him.
"I thought it was going to hit me. And it was airborne. It wasn't bouncing on the ground, it was travelling through the air like a missile," Murphy said.
The flying black object was actually a dual wheel that had come loose from a tractor-trailer travelling in the opposite direction. According to Ontario Provincial Police, the wheel bounced across three lanes of the highway before flying over the median and smashing into a cargo van, tearing most of its roof off.
The driver of that van, 50-year-old Gennadi Brianski from Carleton Place, Ont., died instantly.
Police say the wheel set came off the tractor-trailer soon after the driver noticed smoke coming from the truck's wheels and began to slow down. The collision happened just before 6 a.m., near the Carling Avenue off-ramp.
Murphy told CBC News that the wheel was airborne and heading toward him when it suddenly changed direction.
"It just veered off in mid-air and went right through [Brianski's] truck. I watched it go right through his front windshield and tore right through the truck," Murphy said.
"I went into the van to try to help the guy, but I could see he was not going to make it. He was gone."
Murphy said he found a blanket to put over Brianski's body and phoned 911. He couldn't pinpoint why the wheel suddenly changed direction.
"I've been asking that same question all day," Murphy said. "I don't know. Wind? God? I don't know."
Driver, company charged
After losing its wheel, the tractor-trailer came to a stop on the westbound shoulder of Highway 417.
The company that owns the vehicle, ICB Food Distribution, has been charged with operating an unsafe commercial vehicle. The driver of the truck, a man from Gatineau, Que., has also been charged with driving with a detached part.
His court appearance is scheduled for March 31.
ICB Food Distribution operates from an industrial lot at 3105 Hawthorne Road in east Ottawa, and tractor-trailers are continually coming and going from the business. When CBC News started shooting video of the trucks, an irate man came out of the building and threatened to call police.
"What happened this morning is a tragedy," said the man, who refused to identify himself.
Efforts to contact the victim's family were not successful.
The cause of the wheel's sudden detachment is under investigation. The driver had carried out a pre-trip inspection before the Friday morning incident, said OPP Const. Eric Booth.
"This doesn't happen as much as it used to," Booth said. "A number of years ago, the province set up guidelines and made it a more serious offence for a wheel to come off, and made the owners of the vehicles liable as well as the mechanics."
'It just makes me sick'
For Larry Eligh, Friday morning's fatal crash was all too familiar.
Eligh's son Jason was killed in 2011 after a dual wheel set detached from a tractor-trailer on Highway 401 west of Brockville, Ont.
"The dual wheels that came off, it was identical," said Eligh. "It came across the 401 median and hit the centre cement barrier and went airborne. And it tore the top of the car right off and killed Jason instantly."
"It just makes me sick," he said. "It's a difficult situation and, you know, any kind of accident like this, you know, there is always a reason. It's not just an accident ... whether it's people not paying attention to what they are doing [or not] checking their machines."
In Eligh's case, the tractor-trailer driver was found guilty of criminal negligence causing death and sentenced to three years in prison.
Tougher rules in 2015
Ron Barr, the general manager of the Greater Ottawa Truckers Association, told Alan Neal on All in a Day the Ontario government instituted tougher rules for wheel checks for commercial trucks in 2015.
"I thought [those rules] would have really put a curtail on these [incidents], but I know they happen once in a while and I can't tell you why," said Barr, whose organization represents independent truck operators but not the company connected to Friday's incident.
Barr said whether or not the driver is responsible depends on if he did his job and performed the pre-trip inspection and maintenance of the vehicle properly.
Regardless of fault, said Barr, the incident will likely haunt everyone involved.
"I would hate to ... have a member of mine come home and have his life devastated like the driver of that truck would be today," Barr said. "Win, lose or draw, whether he's responsible or not, he'll wear that for the rest of his life."
Murphy, meanwhile, said he'll be taking the next three days off so he can come to grips with what he saw. He said that when he got into work Friday, his boss sent him home right away.
He lives in Kemptville, Ont., and normally gets to work by driving north on Highway 416 and then onto Highway 417.
For now, he said, he'll be taking a different route.