The bitter cold wave turned lethal Thursday, claiming the lives of two men who became stranded in their car in southern Stevens County.
Although a farmhouse was just 75 yards away, authorities said the men made no attempt to get help.
A passing motorist found the 1973 Ford Ranchero stuck in a snow-filled ditch hugging a rural road. When troopers and rescue workers looked inside, they found the body of the driver, 39-year-old Donald E. Chambers of Ford.
Passenger Jack Jeffries, 46, of Deer Park was barely alive. He died a few hours later at a Spokane hospital.
Authorities believe the two died from hypothermia or carbon monoxide poisoning, or perhaps a combination of the two. Early Thursday morning, the temperature dipped to 21 below zero.
The cause of death won’t be determined until an autopsy is conducted, said Washington State Patrol Sgt. Chris Powell.
Sometime after midnight, Chambers was driving west on Glen Grove-Staley Road seven miles south of Deer Park when his car veered off the snow-covered road and into the shallow ditch near Swenson Road.
Troopers suspect alcohol contributed to the accident. While no containers were found, the car smelled of alcohol, Powell said.
When the car was discovered about 6 a.m., the windows were frosted. Snow around the car had not been disturbed.
“They apparently did not make an effort to seek help,” Powell said.
Rescuers believe the two may have fallen asleep after the accident. There was no damage to the car, and neither man appeared to have suffered any injuries.
“What it appeared like to us is that they had just gone off the road very innocently,” said Ed Lewis, chief of Spokane County Fire District 4, which sent a crew to the scene.
Jeffries was taken to Deer Park Medical Center before being transferred to Deaconess Medical Center, where he died at 11:25 a.m.
Troopers were uncertain how long the men had been in the car.
The car was not running when troopers arrived, but authorities found evidence that it had been running while in the ditch. Snow around the car’s exhaust pipe was black and melted. The key was in the ignition in the “on” position.
The gas tank was three-quarters full.
Nathan and Kathy Roberts, who live in the nearby farmhouse, were puzzled by the deaths.
Their well-lit home is a short jog from the accident scene. A handful of other houses are scattered within a half-mile radius.
“I feel really weird,” Kathy Roberts said. “They were so close to the house. (The accident) wasn’t enough to hurt them. They probably could have gotten out.”
Little was immediately known about Chambers, the driver.
Jeffries was a farm hand who was a frequent visitor to VFW Post 3067 in Deer Park. A note on an ink board at the post announced the tragedy to patrons Thursday afternoon.
“He had a heart of gold,” one man said. “He’d help anybody.”
But many said Jeffries, who was raised in Springdale, was plagued by an alcohol problem. A friend at the VFW said police recently found Jeffries asleep in his idling car in the post parking lot.
“He used his car for a hotel,” said the friend, who asked not to be identified.
Despite Jeffries’ drinking problem, friends remember him as hardworking and caring. He always had time to help them with odd jobs, such as plowing snow, planting seeds and fertilizing, they said.
“And if you got sick, he’d come over and take care of your cows,” said Marlene Carter of Deer Park. “He was like a rover. He would help all of us.”
“He’s kind of like a Jack-of-all-trades,” added Pat Bauer, his former boss.
Jeffries spent the past five years working as a farm hand for Bauer, living on her farm. She considered him a member of her family and said he was a handy mechanic.
“He knew his trucks, he knew his farming,” she said.
Jeffries also frequently brought vegetables to the Greenhouse, a community center that houses Deer Park’s social services programs.
“He was very much of a gentlemen,” Bauer said. “Everybody liked him.”
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