HERCULANEUM • A truck driver triggered an eight-vehicle, chain-reaction crash that killed two people after taking his eyes off the road, the Missouri Highway Patrol said Thursday.
When the truck driver turned his attention back to the road, he saw a line of stopping cars, the patrol said. He tried to avoid the cars but swerved into one car and ran over another, causing the pileup just after noon Wednesday on northbound Interstate 55 near McNutt Street.
Charles A. Martin, 52, of Perryville, was driving the car the truck ran over, a 2005 Ford Focus the truck dragged nearly the length of a football field. Martin was pronounced dead at the scene minutes after the crash.
The driver of another car caught in the pileup, Alana D. McKnight, 28, of Festus, was flown by helicopter to a hospital in St. Louis where she died a few hours later.
The truck driver, Jay L. Valentine, 32, of Huntsville, Texas, was driving in the right lane of I-55 when he took his eyes off the road, police say. The patrol's report lists "inattention" as a contributing factor. Valentine could not be reached for comment.
"He said he looked over to his right for some reason, and looked back," Cpl. Jeff Wilson of the Missouri Highway Patrol said.
When the trucker glanced back to the traffic in front of him, it was slowing to a stop, Wilson said. He swerved, hit a Chevrolet Impala, then rammed and dragged Martin's Ford Focus.
"It didn't look like a car," Herculaneum Fire Capt. Kevin Baker said of the damage to the Focus. "It looked like scrap metal."
After dragging the Focus, the tractor-trailer veered off and caused a crash involving five more vehicles. One of those cars was a Pontiac Vibe driven by McKnight.
Baker said firefighters had to cut off the driver's side door and the roof of the Vibe because McKnight was trapped inside. She was responding to her name but not much else, Baker said.
She died at St. Louis University Hospital about two hours later.
Crews are working on a road widening project on I-55 between Routes M and Z. In the area of the crash, the left lane is newly paved and the right lane is not, and there was construction ahead to the north. Wilson said traffic may have slowed because of the work.
Motorist Brian Schulz said he saw traffic was stopped from half a mile away as he traveled north on I-55 before exiting at McNutt. As he sat at the traffic light at the end of the exit ramp, he glanced over at the stopped cars on the highway and watched as the truck slammed into the traffic jam.
"He never hit his brakes," Schulz said. "It was like a bowling ball and bowling pins."
Schulz, who was driving with his 2-year-old daughter to meet his wife, exited because he needed to stop by his Herculaneum home to pick up something for his wife. He said he probably would have been in the line of traffic if it weren't for that errand.
"That could have been me and my daughter in there," he said. "I thought about that all night last night."
The patrol said its crash reconstruction report could take two weeks. It will then be presented to Jefferson County Prosecutor Forrest Wegge to consider charges.
Wilson said the crash was similar to the one on Highway 40 (Interstate 64) near Interstate 270 on July 15, 2008. In that crash, Alabama trucker Jeffrey Knight killed three motorists after plowing into traffic that had slowed in front of him. The patrol said Knight told them he'd been reaching for his cell phone and took his eyes off the road.
Knight, 51, pleaded guilty this April to three counts of involuntary manslaughter. He was released from jail the next day because the judge gave him credit for time he'd already served in jail since his arrest — 371 days.
Denise Hollinshed and Greg Jonsson of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.