August 3, 1996 in Nation/World

Fire Truck Hits Pickup; Firefighter Arrested Athol Volunteer Accused Of Drunken Driving, Leaving Scene Of An Accident

By The Spokesman-Review

Just before the impact, one thought flashed through Michael Dodge’s mind.

“I thought I was dead.”

But Dodge, a 43-year-old Coeur d’Alene man, didn’t die when the 12-ton fire truck rammed into the side of his pickup Thursday night.

Instead, he survived the collision only to watch the fire truck - and the firefighter in it - drive away.

Idaho State Police arrested James G. Jeffrey, a 59-year-old Athol volunteer firefighter, and charged him with drunken driving and leaving the scene of an injury accident.

Police say Jeffrey was headed to a fire when he drove through a stop sign without sirens or lights flashing. And after running into Dodge’s pickup, Jeffrey apparently kept driving to the blaze, fire officials said.

“As far as I’m concerned, he left me for dead,” Dodge said Friday, nursing cuts and bruises.

But Jeffrey’s attorney, Brad Stoddard, said Friday his client maintains his innocence.

The Athol Fire Department is staffed with 11 volunteer firefighters who can be called out at any time. Jeffrey, a retired banker who lives in Hayden, has volunteered for about a year, said Chief Marion Blackwell.

“He’s been a good one,” Blackwell said. “Any time we ask him to do something, he does not hesitate.”

About 9:15 p.m. Thursday, the Athol Fire Department was called to a slash burn blazing out of control. The flames could be seen two miles away, Blackwell said.

Jeffrey picked up the 1968 tanker truck loaded with a thousand gallons of water from the Bunco Road substation, Blackwell said.

Driving west on Bunco Road, Jeffrey failed to stop at the stop sign at U.S. Highway 95, said ISP Sgt. Jay Komosinski.

“I never saw him until right before the impact,” said Dodge, who was driving south on Highway 95. “I didn’t see any lights.”

For Dodge, the impact was an explosion of noise and fear.

“His bumper just ripped off the front of my truck and tore a door off,” Dodge said, explaining the blow also knocked out his brakes. “I was just careening through a field out of control.”

When his pickup finally stopped more than 200 feet into the field, “Everyone just kept driving by,” he said. Dodge sat pinned in the mangled truck, his dog, Ruffles, whimpering in the back.

“Two employees from Silverwood finally came by,” Dodge said, explaining he was able to wrench himself free. “They said they saw the (fire) truck speed off. They said, ‘That guy just left.”’

Jeffrey kept driving west on Brunner Road toward the fire. Chief Blackwell, who heard a report of the accident on his radio, said he found Jeffrey about three-fourths of a mile from the accident scene. Blackwell took the firefighter back to the scene, where ISP arrested him.

Jeffrey admitted drinking at least two beers before the crash, Komosinski said. His blood-alcohol level was .11 at the time of his arrest. A driver is considered to be under the influence at .10.

Firefighters were able to get the blaze under control shortly after the accident, Blackwell said.

Jeffrey was released from jail on his own recognizance Friday.

Chief Blackwell said Jeffrey told him that he had tried to turn on the flashing lights and sirens but wasn’t able to find the switches in the poorly lit truck that is rarely used.

When the collision happened, “he said he felt a bump but it didn’t feel like it was that much of an impact,” Blackwell said.

Jeffrey told the chief that he kept driving because he thought the fire was nearby. He said he saw someone moving around the pickup and thought they were OK. He planned to drop the water off and return to the accident, Blackwell said.

Dodge is skeptical. “If that’s his story, it’s a lame one. It was a major hit.”

“A few inches farther back into the driver’s door and I’m confident we would have had a fatality,” Komosinski said.

Blackwell said Jeffrey should have stopped at the accident, fire or no fire. And, he said, “Our policy is, you do not come to this station when you’re under the influence.”

The fire department has placed Jeffrey on administrative suspension pending further investigation.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

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