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Friday, November 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Man whose life was saved believes jury failed hero who died in fiery crash

The afternoon of Sept. 12, 2006, stands vividly in Steve Arce’s memory.

He and an employee were driving up the winding road to 49 Degrees North outside Chewelah, on their way to unload some drywall. A quarter-mile or so ahead on an uphill curve, Arce saw a big work truck and trailer and two workers on the roadside, busy on a road sign project.

For reasons that remain unknown, the truck and trailer started rolling downhill, with no one in the driver’s seat. It picked up speed, on a head-on collision course with Arce’s pickup truck. Then Arce – who was pulling over against the guardrail and desperately trying to figure out what to do – saw a tall, lean young man sprinting alongside the truck.

“He was booking,” Arce said. “He just kept running, man, and caught up with the truck. … and jumped on the running board and opened the passenger door and just leaped across the seat and grabbed the steering wheel.”

The young man – 19-year-old Daren LaFayette – jerked the wheel, preventing a crash at the last second. He then rode in the truck with failed brakes downhill for a mile and a half, trying unsuccessfully to get it under control, until it shot off the road, crashed and burst into flames.

LaFayette died.

Steve Arce did not.

“The guy saved my life,” said Arce, a 52-year-old general contractor who lives in the Spokane Valley. “I really feel that – that guy saved my life.”

Naturally, Arce sees LaFayette as a hero. And he’s saddened by last week’s jury verdict in a lawsuit brought by LaFayette’s mother – finding no blame on the part of the general contractor, N.A. Degerstrom; the man who installed the brakes; or the company that made the truck’s supplemental brake system.

“If it was one of my vehicles, and the same thing happened, my insurance company’s going to bend over backward to help the employee’s family,” he said.

Arce might be a bit optimistic about the altruism of his insurance company, but his larger point is hard to dispute: LaFayette risked and lost his life in a work accident, and may well have saved the lives of others. His family should not be the only one to pay the price for the failure of that truck’s brakes.

To be fair, though, sorting out the blame is no easy matter. There are a lot of unanswered questions. It’s unclear why the truck began rolling in the first place. The fire after the crash destroyed some of the evidence that might have clarified that. There was a dispute over whether the subcontractor hired by Degerstrom provided “chocks” to prevent the truck from rolling – though Degerstrom did deliver chocks to the work site the day after the accident. There is a tangle of legalities regarding workplace liability, including the fact that LaFayette and his co-worker were hired by a subcontractor of Degerstrom – the subcontractor, Sharp-Line Industries, can’t be sued under state law. Degerstrom argued that it’s not responsible for what its subcontractors do.

Undisputed is who was not at fault. Daren LaFayette.

LaFayette lived in Elk, attended Riverside schools and graduated from Riverside High in 2005. He was the co-captain of his high school football and baseball teams, as well as an assistant coach and umpire for youth baseball, according to a memorial page established on MySpace. He was a Boy Scout and enjoyed hunting and fishing, and he had a lot of family in the area.

It’s a fairly typical resume for a Western kid, except for one thing: It’s way, way too short.

LaFayette had started working for Sharp-Line not long before the accident. He and a co-worker were installing signposts along Flowery Trail Road, and were in the process of digging the day’s final posthole when the truck started rolling.

Arce figures the truck was moving around 20 mph when LaFayette jumped on, and his heroics sound like something out of an action movie. But what haunts Arce is what he saw in that flash of time on the young man’s face.

Arce had pulled as far to the right as he could, but was trapped by the guardrail. He wasn’t driving very fast – 25 mph or so – but the oncoming truck was way bigger than his three-quarter-ton Chevy, and it was building speed. He couldn’t decide whether to slow down or speed up, so he just kept going at a steady pace, eyes glued to the truck ahead.

“There was nothing we could do,” he said.

As LaFayette lunged for the steering wheel, Arce got a glimpse of his face.

“His facial expressions and stuff – it’s melted into my mind,” he said. “I’ll never forget it. He was just shocked and scared, the whole nine yards. … His eyes were as wide as they could be.”

Arce and his passenger, Jacob Wells, were not allowed to testify that they believe LaFayette saved their lives. Legally, that may make sense – the questions were not about LaFayette’s undisputed heroism or about what might have happened had he not done what he did. And Arce’s wish that something be done for LaFayette’s mother might be based more on his admiration and gratitude for LaFayette than on legal particulars.

“The jury did him wrong, is what I think,” he said.

There’s the law, and there’s life. Arce can’t forget what that young man did for him.

“It still brings tears to my eyes sometimes thinking about it,” he said. “He saved our lives. He’s a hero in my mind.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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