The investigation into the crash that killed all five children of a Chewelah family is focusing on about 15 to 18 seconds that a Deer Park driver had to react before his wayward pickup smashed into oncoming traffic.
Clifford Helm, 55, was northbound on U.S. Highway 395 Tuesday afternoon when his 1999 Ford pickup left the roadway and entered the median, where it traveled about 300 feet before he corrected, Washington State Patrol Sgt. Ken Wade said.
Helm steered his pickup out of the median and into the southbound lanes for about 1,300 feet – the distance of about four football fields – before his pickup obliterated the 1986 Ford pickup driven by 38-year-old Jeffrey Schrock, killing all five of Schrock’s children.
The normal reaction time is between 1 and 1 ½ seconds for a driver to perceive and react to a hazard, Wade said.
“It looks like 15 to 18 seconds to react from the time he left the roadway to the time of the collision,” Wade said. “That is the point of our investigation: What took place once he left that roadway.”
Helm remained in satisfactory condition Thursday and Jeffrey Schrock was in serious condition at Sacred Heart Medical Center.
Killed at the scene were 12-year-old Carmen, 10-year-old Jana, 8-year-old Carinna, 5-year-old Jerryl and 2-year-old Craig Schrock. Their funeral will be Monday.
Investigators are waiting for the medical conditions of both men to improve before they ask them about the crash in detail.
“Currently there is no clear cause to this collision,” Wade said. “Until we have the opportunity to talk to Mr. Helm, I don’t know what was going through his mind, what actions he was taking or what, if anything, he was trying to avoid.”
Al Karsevar, 58, a family friend, said he spoke to Helm and his family Wednesday night at Sacred Heart.
“They are all in shock,” Karsevar said. “They just can’t believe what had happened.”
Karsevar manages the Alderwood RV Resort in Mead. He said Helm worked for years in the area as landscape contractor before he built and operated Alderwood.
Helm sold the resort several years ago and retired. Karsevar said Helm’s family is not pleased with media coverage of Helm’s four traffic infractions since 2003.
“I was horrified by all the negative press he was getting,” Karsevar said. “He’s always driven responsibly around me. It’s just too bad that the truck didn’t stay in the median.”
Wade said detectives are looking at Helm’s driving record, along with everything else that may have contributed to the crash.
“It’s all relevant if we have a person who exhibits a continual pattern of behavior,” Wade said. “We will certainly look to see if that pattern contributed to the collision.”
Witnesses have indicated that Helm was driving normally just before his pickup entered the median, Wade said.
On Tuesday, Helm had just picked up his pickup from a shop and was driving a short distance to his home near Deer Park, Karsevar said.
“It’s just a horrifying circumstance,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised one bit that it turns out to be a medical condition.”
While investigators remain open to that possibility, the evidence suggests that Helm had some control of his pickup, Wade said.
“It is unusual,” he said. “And that’s why we ruled out some things that are common factors in cross-over collisions. Obviously, he had control of his vehicle to the extent where he could travel down the roadway for some distance.”
According to witnesses, it was still daylight, both drivers had their lights on and the roadway was bare and wet. Witnesses estimated the pickups were traveling about 60 mph when they smashed into each other, hitting head-on on the passenger sides of both trucks.
“A lot of questions need to be asked and answered,” Wade said. “We are hoping that (Helm and Schrock) will be able to shed some light on why certain events happened.”
Helm learned of the gravity of the crash in a brief conversation he had Tuesday night with WSP Detective Tracy Hansen. She then had to inform Schrock’s wife, who is eight months pregnant, about her children.
“To be the one to have to sit there and tell them,” Wade said before he paused. “It’s a horrible thing to go through. It’s bad enough when you have to tell a husband that his wife was killed. But to have to tell them that basically your entire family has been wiped out in a single act, it’s absolutely devastating.”