Akron police and witnesses are calling a dump truck driver a hero who sacrificed his life as he maneuvered his out-of-control vehicle down Portage Trail Extension, through a busy intersection and past a strip mall of pedestrians before crashing into the Cuyahoga River.
Christopher Burgess, 41, of Ravenna, could not be rescued from the murky waters as the cab of his 12-wheel dump truck twisted and landed on its roof just after 11 a.m. Thursday. After 90 minutes, rescuers were forced to use a crane to pull the industrial-sized vehicle from the water.
There were no other injuries reported.
Police say it appears the dump truck’s air brakes failed as it descended Portage Trail. An inspection of the truck will take place this week. The dump truck is a 2004 Sterling tri-axle. It was carrying about 15 tons of sand for Huber Trucking in Ravenna. Company officials did not respond to a request for a statement.
Police Lt. Rick Edwards said an investigation, including a reconstruction of the crash, is ongoing to determine if and why the truck’s brake system may have failed.
Witnesses said the driver was waving his arms and blaring his truck’s horn as he sped out of control down the steeply inclined Portage Trail toward the Akron-Peninsula Road intersection in the Merriman Valley. Police estimate the truck was traveling 50 mph as it entered the shopping plaza parking lot.
Signs at the top of the hill near the Timber Top apartments caution truckers to use a lower gear while traveling into the Valley. Witnesses said the man’s truck, which was hauling sand, ran through the intersection and went into the Valley Centre Plaza parking lot, where the driver swerved left between two businesses and toward an embankment next to the Cuyahoga River.
The truck then climbed the embankment, severing a large tree before flipping and sliding down the other side, with the cab submerging in the murky water. Akron and Cuyahoga Falls firefighters and dive team rescuers tried in vain to pull the man out of the vehicle. They were unable to access the cab.
A large crane finally pulled the dump truck, with the driver inside, from the water at about 2:20 p.m. An autopsy is expected to be performed to determine a cause of death.
“He was really moving and somehow he missed everything. He definitely saved a lot of people from getting hurt,” said Treymaine Danzy, who was inside his car on Akron-Peninsula Road when the dump truck descended Portage Trail and sped through a red light. “He made sure not to hit anybody. That was courageous of him. I just feel bad for the whole situation, but also blessed. A second later and he probably would have crushed me.”
Another driver, Trista Merendino, was driving on Akron-Peninsula Road with her children in tow, when she saw the truck hurtling through the intersection. She was visibly shaken as she described the events out of earshot from her young children. She said the driver was sounding his horn and frantically waving his arms as he approached the strip mall parking lot.
“You could tell he sacrificed himself so he wouldn’t harm others,” Merendino said. “I believe he did save other lives. My heart breaks for him.”
The intersection was the scene of a similar crash about 20 years ago. A motorist’s brake failed as he came down Portage Trail. Witnesses said they saw smoke and parts coming from the car as it careered down the steep hill.
The car reached speeds of about 50 mph before crossing Akron-Peninsula Road and into the shopping plaza. The car crashed into the river, killing two passengers. The driver was later convicted of vehicular homicide.
Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.