Ketchikan accident kills 2 girls

5 others injured in truck-compact car collision near waterfront

Posted: Thursday, August 08, 2002

KETCHIKAN - A violent collision between a compact car and a pickup truck Tuesday afternoon killed two teen-age girls and injured four other teens and a young man.

The driver of the 1988 Honda Accord, Courtnie Tuinstra, 15, and one of her two passengers, Chelsea Palmer, 15, were pronounced dead at Ketchikan General Hospital.

A second passenger, Jamie Palmer, 16, Chelsea Palmer's sister, was in stable condition Tuesday evening.

Ketchikan Police Chief Grant Sirevog said Tuinstra at 3:14 p.m. drove into the path of a 1996 Dodge Ram pickup truck driven by Andrew Spokely, 28. He and three 15-year-old passengers, Michael Bjur, Michael Lawler, and Michael Slenkamp, also were in stable condition.

Spokely was driving on Tongass Avenue, which runs along Ketchikan's waterfront. Tuinstra was headed down Madison, a steep street that leads to the waterfront.

Sirevog said a preliminary investigation indicates that the Honda headed downhill at high speed, apparently unable to brake. Jamie Palmer told Ketchikan Fire Department emergency workers that the Honda's brakes failed and that Courtnie Tuinstra could not stop the car with the emergency brake.

A witness told police that he saw the car traveling downhill at normal speed on Madison between Third Avenue and Second Avenue. It was making funny noises not related to engine acceleration sounds, when it suddenly gained speed, the witness said.

According to the witness, the car went airborne and continued gaining speed until the collision.

The front window of the Alaska Timber Insurance Exchange at First Avenue and Madison looks out onto the street and employees noticed the Honda.

Laure Bray, who saw the speeding car, and Marcia Lapinski, who heard it, said vehicles heading downhill from the high school several blocks away often go airborne when they reach Second Avenue.

"My guess is she was going at least 50 (mph)," Bray said. "She was absolutely flying."

Lapinski said the collision was terrible.

"The sound was a sonic boom," she said.

The pickup vaulted over the Honda, rolled, and landed on its wheels, Sirevog said. The driver's air bag deployed in the pickup.

The Honda spun around 180 degrees, facing up Madison Street, Sirevog said.

Andy White, who was driving a Chevrolet pickup in the opposite lane on Tongass Avenue, said the Honda came into view so fast that the truck driver had no chance to slow down or take evasive action.

Fire Department dispatcher Gretchen Skillings said 33 employees responded to the scene with three ambulances, two engines, a rescue vehicle and other vehicles. Eleven city police officers investigated the accident or directed traffic away from the scene for two hours while residents lined the street, watching in silence.

"This is a terrible, terrible accident," Sirevog said. "In that situation you have to try to stop the car. They attempted to do what the textbook says to do. We can look at other things they could do - run into a car along the side of the road or crash into something else - but human nature is to steer clear of everything and try to ride it out."

Alaska State Troopers will assist in the accident investigation, Sirevog said.

Sirevog said he did not know Tuinstra's driver's license status. She was old enough to have a driver's permit, but if she had one, should not have been driving without a licensed driver at least 21 years old, he said.

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