LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Five people killed in chain-reaction accidents on Interstate 80 in western Nebraska were identified Wednesday as a Minnesota truck driver and a Maryland family with two young children and a mother who was more than seven months pregnant.
Authorities in Cheyenne County, Neb., named the victims after charging an Illinois truck driver with manslaughter and vehicular homicide for allegedly causing one of the two Sunday crashes. The first motorist killed was semi driver Keith Johnson, 27, of Big Lake, Minn., who collided with a disabled tractor-trailer around 4:45 a.m. on a stretch of interstate roughly 40 miles east of the Wyoming border.
The crash slowed traffic to a standstill, which contributed to a second fiery collision involving two semis and two cars about three miles east of the site.
Cheyenne County Attorney Paul Schaub said semi driver Josef Slezak, 36, of River Grove, Ill., was charged with four counts of manslaughter and four counts of vehicular homicide after he slammed into a 2010 Ford Mustang driven by 30-year-old Christopher Schmidt, of Gaithersburg, Md.
Schaub said the force of that collision pushed Schmidt into a 2007 Toyota Corolla driven by his 28-year-old old wife, Diana Schmidt, also of Gaithersburg, Md. The Corolla was rammed under another semi, killing Diana Schmidt and the family’s two children, 2-year-old Conner Schmidt and 3-year-old Samuel Schmidt. Diana Schmidt was 30 weeks pregnant.
Slezak was unharmed, as was the driver of the truck struck by Diana Schmidt. That driver, 49-year-old William D. Wiener, of Algona, Iowa, told investigators that Slezak’s truck didn’t appear to slow down before it crashed into the Mustang.
Other truck drivers told investigators there was constant chatter about the accident on the citizens band radio as drivers warned each other to slow down. According to court documents, Slezak told investigators he never listens to the CB and that he didn’t see anything before hearing a crash.
An accident reconstructionist who examined the scene concluded Slezak failed to slow down and exercise caution on the road. Authorities closed I-80 for more than 14 hours after the crashes.
Slezak remained jailed on Wednesday in lieu of $1 million bond. His court-appointed attorney filed papers Tuesday to try to lower his bond to $25,000. A call to Slezak’s lawyer wasn’t immediately returned.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)