Four members of a Las Vegas family died in a collision with a water truck Friday as their relatives in another car watched.
The victims were only a few miles away from a family reunion in Hayden that they had trekked all the way from Nevada to attend.
A 15-year-old boy with a learner’s permit was driving a rental car north on U.S. Highway 95 to the gathering. He pulled off to the right and attempted a U-turn as a water tanker truck approached from behind.
The collision killed the boy, Karl The-Nguyen; his grandfather, William C. Koch, 65; grandmother, Peggy A. Koch, 64; and aunt, Karla S. Koch, 40. The teen’s parents and siblings saw the accident from another rental car traveling behind The-Nguyen’s vehicle and the truck.
An Idaho State Police officer said it was the worst accident he has seen.
“I couldn’t imagine anybody living through that,” said a witness, Ray Bertsch of Coeur d’Alene, after watching the crumpled car careen almost 75 feet down the highway. “It was just such a hard hit. It was the most horrid sound I’ve heard.”
Bertsch and his 8-year-old daughter were standing in a nearby tree nursery when the Interstate Concrete and Asphalt truck hit the white Chevrolet Corsica about 1 p.m. Friday.
The family had flown Friday morn ing from Las Vegas to Seattle, where they rented the cars from National Car Rental, ISP Cpl. Sean Daly said.
They were headed to a Hayden neighborhood for the family reunion. But as the first car neared Lancaster Road, its occupants apparently realized they had missed the turnoff.
The teen pulled off into a right-turn lane. He then pulled the rental car back into traffic, intending to make a U-turn, Daly said.
The truck driver, Michael E. Wyatt, 41, of Post Falls, was heading north behind the youth. Wyatt didn’t have time to hit the brakes before the car pulled out, Daly said.
“They turned right in front of that truck so the Interstate truck just T-boned them,” Bertsch said.
The truck crushed the left side of the car, sending the vehicle careering across the highway. Water flying, the big rig then skidded to a stop, leaking its load all over the hot pavement.
“I don’t think he had any time to react to try to prevent it,” said Bruce Cyr, president of Interstate Concrete and Asphalt Co. “I think all he could do was slam on the brakes and hope for the best.”
Bertsch had a cellular phone in his pocket and called 911. He and employees at the Huckleberry Wholesaler nursery went to the accident scene and tried to help.
“It was horrible,” said Jake Dyer, a 26-year-old nursery employee. “There just wasn’t much we could do.”
Bertsch said the hardest part about the accident was watching the survivors who saw their relatives die.
Sheryl A. Koch lost her mother, father, sister and son in the accident.
“When I arrived, Mrs. Koch was holding her mother’s head and trying to keep her alive,” Daly said.
Ngan Kim The-Nguyen was especially affected after watching her brother and grandparents die.
“The girl kept vomiting and vomiting,” Daly said. “The more she looked, the more she vomited.”
She collapsed at the scene and was taken to Kootenai Medical Center, where she was treated and released.
Thuong The-Nguyen, father of the driver, appeared to go into shock, Daly said.
Clothes, twisted metal, crushed eyeglasses and a tire littered the pavement at the intersection. Emergency workers had to cut off the top of the car to remove the bodies.
Daly said none of the people in the car was wearing seat belts. A driver’s side airbag did inflate.
A National Car spokesman said that no one under 25 is supposed to drive their rental cars.
Daly said he will issue no citations. He said Wyatt did nothing wrong.
Cyr said Wyatt will probably seek counseling, although the trucker was unhurt.
“He’s pretty traumatized,” the Interstate president said. “He feels really bad that it was a family that was involved.”
The accident also affected witnesses and officers. “This hits people very hard,” Daly said.
Bertsch tried to shield his daughter, who saw the whole thing, the best he could. But he said the incident probably affected him more than her.
“It shook me up,” Bertsch said. “It really makes you think and it makes you more aware than you usually are when you’re driving.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo; Map of crash site