By Paul A. Anthony, Editor in Chief
When he became quiet, she didn’t notice.
But when he screamed, she didn’t have much choice. The car was almost on top of them.
In seconds, students Jeremy Cook and Leigh Ann Elrod rammed into the vehicle going the wrong way on the one-way road. Their truck veered to the side of the road. Flipped. Rolled. Rolled again. Hit a concrete culvert. And came to rest on its roof, a mere 16 inches of air left where the driver’s seat had been.
“I was praying while we were rolling,” said Elrod, sophomore integrated marketing communication major from Crockett. She walked away from the accident with an airbag burn and little else.
Cook, however, was either thrown from the car or crawled out after the wreck with a broken eye socket and broken vertebra.
The violent accident occurred on Sept. 9 just minutes from school, less than a mile south of East North 10th Street on Loop 322. Cook, who was driving, swerved in an attempt to avoid Robert Sterling, who had mistakenly turned into the wrong lane of the divided highway.
The accident is the second of such magnitude this year involving a university student related to construction on the loop. Freshman Rob Sommerwerck died April 15 when his car was broadsided by a pickup on East Highway 80, which at the time was under construction.
Likewise, construction had just finished on 322, opening a 4-lane divided highway after two years of lane closures that had rerouted traffic. Sterling apparently had gotten confused or not been paying attention. In either case, he did not recognize that the southbound lane of Loop 322 was open and headed south on the northbound side toward Cook and Elrod.
But Sterling wasn’t alone, police said.
“He’s not the only one who’s gone down the wrong lane,” said Abilene Police Department officer Gary Bone, who was in charge of the accident scene Sept. 9. Bone said a tractor trailer truck passed the accident scene while officers were still cleaning it up, also going the wrong way.
Cook’s and Sterling’s vehicles collided, left headlight to left headlight, sending both men to Hendrick Medical Center’s critical care unit. Sterling’s leg was shattered from femur to ankle, Elrod said.
The 80-year-old Sterling is still in critical care, Elrod said, while Cook, 19, has been flown to Houston for surgery to repair his eye.
Bone said Texas Department of Transportation workers hurried to the East North 10th Street intersection to clear up confusion there soon after the 18-wheeler turned into the wrong lanes.
A TXDOT official said the agency, which is in charge of the loop construction, maintains safe standards on all its construction projects.
“Safety’s No. 1, no doubt about it,” said David Siegel, Abilene-area engineer for TXDOT. “We’re continually trying to make construction as safe as possible.”
Large signs on East North 10th Street warn motorists that a “Major Traffic Change” is ahead. Siebert said those signs were put in place “early last week,” but that he didn’t know whether they were installed before the accident.
“It should’ve been clearly marked,” Elrod said. “I do feel that the city should be more careful.”
Elrod said she didn’t recall any signs giving advance notice on East North 10th but noted that as of Monday afternoon, a sign told motorists, “Road Work Ahead,” even though roadwork at the intersection has finished.
The intersection where Sterling apparently made his turn onto Loop 322 is unlit, relying on a reflective stop sign and plastic orange barriers for warning. Siebert said lighting is being installed for the intersection.
Siebert defended the marking of the road, arguing that TXDOT signs warning motorists that a “Major Traffic Change” was coming Sept. 5 and 6.
“They’ve been out there for weeks,” he said. “We really need people when they’re going through construction zones to follow the signs and have a bigger awareness than normal.”