Five Killed, Five Injured In Fiery Van Crash
The NTSB announced Thursday that its team would be on the scene in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge later that day. Meanwhile, the fire that consumed the victims after the van crashed into a tree and burst into flames might have killed several other passengers if it wasn't for three good Samaritans who came to the rescue.
Leslie Mahoney, a 57-year-old grandmother and Rockaway resident, became the first rescuer on the scene when she pulled her car over and ran across the roadway to pull people from the burning van, an ambulette bringing nine mentally disabled adults from a day program at Peninsula Hospital Center back to their residence, the Brooklyn Manor Home for Adults in East New York.
Her first instinct was to dial 911, but she could not get service on her T-Mobile cell phone in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, one of the most isolated spots in the area that is known for causing dropped calls. Mahoney said she couldn't just sit there making failed calls.
"I saw one guy hanging out the side window," Mahoney told The Wave. "This van was already in flames - the back and the side toward Howard Beach," she said. The man trying to escape the burning wreckage was screaming "mommy, mommy, help me," she said.
"Your adrenaline hits. I got that door open," Mahoney said. Right behind her was Thomas Madonna, a Rockaway Park resident and firefighter, and Michael Hickey, a Long Island man and truck driver for Call-A-Head in Broad Channel.
The good Samaritans pulled four people out of the van. "They were all a mess," Mahoney said describing broken limbs, severe bleeding and intense screaming. "We pulled them as far away as we could because we thought the van would explode."
A man in the front part of the van was still moving but the flames prevented his rescue. "We just couldn't get him," Mahoney said. "It was horrible, horrible, horrible."
The driver, Guy Thelemaque, 55 - the man screaming for his mother - got out of the van on his own and, in an apparent state of shock, started wandering south on the boulevard. Mahoney went after him, grabbing him by his arm which was white from severe burns, she said.
Police, firefighters and EMTs arrived and started helping the injured and extinguishing the flames. Carl Harkings, 44, Jean Hastik, 60, Jose Prieto, 56, and Sheldon Wilson, 41, were taken to area hospitals. They were expected to survive.
Five other passengers, Jose Alvarez, 55, Miguel Cruz, 56, William Smith, 69, James Lawson, 79, and Mario Gonzalez, 58, were pronounced dead at the scene, police said.
The Wave spoke with Mahoney, who was back at work at West End Realty on the day after the crash, and the grandmother-turned-rescuer again raised the issue of cell reception in the remote wildlife refuge. The crash happened at about 3:15 p.m., a lull period before the evening rush. Mahoney said she was the only driver traveling southbound when she pulled over and that her attempt to call 911 was futile.
Calls to our office from witnesses were so distorted that communication was impossible. A police source confirmed Thursday that the NYPD learned of the crash via a "pickup," which is when officers on patrol simply happen upon an emergency.
Mahoney noted something else from the scene: motorists heading northbound on Cross Bay Boulevard didn't make way for emergency vehicles, she said.
The NYPD Highway Unit was investigating the crash as The Wave went to press on Thursday. Thelemaque, the driver, has a suspended license, a history of moving violations and was likely speeding, according to published reports.
Meanwhile, cars continued to race along on Cross Bay Boulevard - the local "boulevard of death" - the day after the crash. Police presence was light and one source concluded, "It's still a drag-strip."
PHC quickly assembled an intervention team to assist clients with the loss of friends, according to spokesperson Liz Sulik. Some of the victims had been attending PHC programs for more than a decade, she said. "They have become part of the family here," Sulik said. "The mood here is very, very somber."
Repeated calls to the Brooklyn Manor were unsuccessful.