This is a five-part series about the history of trucking accidents on Ithaca’s distinctive hills. Click on the part you wish to read.
— Jeff Stein
Part I — “Completely out of control”
Ithaca, N.Y. — He just couldn’t get it to stop.
The truck screamed down the Ithaca hill. The driver shifted from fourth gear to third. He sounded the horn. He sounded the horn again.
But the cars in front of him were slowing down, not getting out of the way. He swerved around one.
The truck accelerated down the hill. Trying to move into second gear didn’t work.
“The vehicle became free-wheeling,” the truck driver later told police. “I then pulled on the emergency brake as hard as possible.”
That slowed him down — but only a little.
“At that time I realized that the vehicle was completely out of control,” the driver said.
Desperate, he turned off the ignition switch. It didn’t help. He saw a busy intersection ahead of him, and he swerved again to prevent a head-on collision.
The truck skidded and spun. It hit a station wagon and pushed it into an establishment on Aurora Street called Simeon’s. The woman in the station wagon was crushed to death.
Her name was Lucretia Bowles. The year was 1985.
Part II — The case for pessimism
When John Gutenberger was a toddler in the 1940s, a truck barreled through his parents’ house on South Aurora Street in Ithaca.
The driver was killed. His parents could have been.
“They were lucky — the truck went through the corner of the house where the bedroom was,” said Gutenberger, who would go on to become mayor of Ithaca and now works in Cornell’s Office of Community Relations. “Had it been a little earlier in the evening, it might have been a different outcome.”
Gutenberger has seen runaway trucks repeatedly cause calamity in downtown Ithaca. And he’s watched, time and again, as the city fails to find solutions.
The aftermath of the June 20 crash at Simeon’s on the Commons has produced yet another flurry of concern, with government officials focusing on the question, How do we prevent trucking accidents on the hills running into Ithaca?
But Gutenberger, in his seventh decade as an Ithacan, raises a more fundamental issue: What if an effective solution for truck safety in Ithaca simply doesn’t exist?
“If there’s some innovative, magic solution out there, I wish someone would come up with it,” he said in an interview last week. “But absent bulldozing the hills, as long as you have an elevation change with the city at the bottom, it’s going to be a problem.”
Gutenberger was mayor in the 1980s when Bowles died in the crash outside Simeon’s. The Ithaca Voice obtained hundreds of police reports detailing that accident through a Freedom of Information Law request.
Alan Cohen, the owner of Simeon’s in the 1980s, noted that the 1985 crash and the 2014 crash have striking similarities. Cohen would go onto become mayor of Ithaca, but he now lives in Florida, and has watched the news from afar.
“The two events were just as tragic, and I don’t know why there was not an outcry the last time,” Cohen said.
The response is different this time, Cohen says.
Mayor Svante Myrick has assigned the city’s engineers to study the problem. Common Council members have called for answers. The public has demanded a response.
The state is getting involved. The Department of Transportation, Tompkins County, Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton and Mayor Myrick are forming a group to explore “every possible improvement” to truck safety.
But Gutenberger said he’d be surprised if they found the magic bullet. Something similar to the current frenetic search for fixes, he noted, occurred among Common Council members in the 1970s after a bad accident downtown in that decade.
Gutenberger has followed recent news reports of possible solutions. He’s not impressed.
“It looks like they’re as frustrated now as we were back then,” Gutenberger said.
Part III — Trucks run wild … in 1935
Truck accidents on Ithaca’s distinctive slopes have bedeviled the city since at least the 1930s.
An Ithaca Journal story printed on Feb. 11, 1935, reported on the hospitalization of four people after a truck “ran wild on East State Street, struck an auto, cut off a telephone pole, scraped a tree, and crashed into three houses.”
A photo beneath the headline, “Truck’s rampage ends in house basement,” showed debris, wood, and pieces of the truck scattered at the crash site.
Half the truck was shown embedded inside the house, the back half of it jutting out much like the tractor-trailer that hit Simeon’s in June.
“The driver told police that the breaks (sic) would not hold back the load after he felt the gears give way,” The Journal’s report said. “The driver blew the horn continuously to warn pedestrians and other motorists.”
The truck splintered a telephone pole before plowing into a front porch, living room and basement.
Emergency responders rushed to save the wounded. One woman was “imprisoned” by debris that trapped her in her house’s bathroom.
A review of records with the History Center in Tompkins County and interviews conducted by The Ithaca Voice produced a striking list of other serious truck crashes:
— On April 7, 1960, according to a photo by Bill Pyle kept at the history center. The Pyle photo shows a truck embedded inside an ice cream and grocery store. (The Voice was unable to determine exactly where this crash occurred. If you know, email me at email@example.com.)
— Later on in the 1960s, when a truck slammed into the old theater The Strand that stood by the Carey Building.
Nobody was killed in that crash, but mostly by luck, Gutenberger said. “If the truck had gone through there at a little bit of a different time it would have been a lot of people coming out of the movies,” he said.
— In April 1969, when a truck landed on its side after landing on top of a sports car, according to The Ithaca Journal’s archives.
“This was one of many truck accidents on this hill,” a caption notes.
— In August 1969, when a truck collided with a car. “Hundreds of beer cans and bottles were strewn across South Aurora” street after the accident, according to The Ithaca Journal’s archives.
— In the 1970s, a serious truck crash on the Commons spurred city officials to search for a solution. Gutenberger said he didn’t think that crash was fatal but wasn’t sure.
— There were two similar non-fatal accidents in 1993 and 1997, according to The Ithaca Journal’s archives.
— In 1999, a tractor-trailer going down East State Street rolled over, smashed onto three cars parked outside Simeon’s and spilled more than 71,000 pounds of garbage on the street, according to The Journal.
— In 2010, when a truck crashed into the Community School of Music and Arts. The driver was critically injured.
Part IV — City government gets nowhere
Ithaca’s Common Council came up with an exhaustive list of ideas in the 1970s to prevent trucking accidents, Gutenberger said.
Someone proposed a net system at the base of the hills that would “catch runaway trucks,” he said.
But questions soon surfaced: What would trigger the net? How would it be activated? They eventually dismissed the idea as impractical.
Another suggestion was for volunteers get in and out of trucks at the top of the hill. The proposal would be for the volunteers to be trained to identify trucks with defective brakes.
But that ran into a barrage of practical objections, too. How would the volunteers be compensated? Wouldn’t two people — as opposed to just the driver — be at risk if the truck turned out to have defective brakes?
“We couldn’t think of anything new, or different, that would be financially feasible or feasible without putting people at further risk,” Gutenberger said. “The bottom line was: There were a lot of ideas, and nothing feasible ever came out of it.”
The Common Council’s public safety committee grew frustrated. The simplest solution of taking trucks off the road altogether, as suggested by Assemblywoman Lifton in an interview last week, was off the table.
“We usually ended up with the same conclusion,” Gutenberger said, “That even with enforcement, unfortunately — if someone has bad brakes, you don’t know that until they fail …”
Gutenberger described truck safety in physics terms, as several parts of an equation — unruly trucks on steep hills leading to a busy intersection — with no way of altering the fundamental inputs.
“It’s kind of like: Water runs down hills,” Gutenberger said, “and so do vehicles and trucks if they lose their brakes.”
Part V — The stakes
Officer K. Loson was one of the first on the scene that day in 1985.
What he saw was chaos: Pedestrians running everywhere. Downed power lines and telephone poles. A truck smashed into the heart of downtown Ithaca.
Two people lay on the pavement “bleeding heavily from the forehead-eye area.” Bystanders tried to comfort the injured. One pedestrian had been thrown 20 to 30 feet down the road.
Ambulances began arriving. With the wounded getting help, Loson approached Simeon’s.
He discovered that the truck wasn’t the only vehicle involved in the collision. A brown Volvo station wagon, trapped between Simeon’s and the 19,203-pound truck, had been obliterated.
Loson got closer. And then he saw it: A foot — nothing more — could be seen jutting out from the center of the wreckage.
Lucretia Bowles was 49. She had been a firefighter, according to a Danby Area Newsletter. She was an Ithacan.
Police found her purse near the scene.
Among the contents inside were a sign-out sheet for the Tompkins County library, a red spiral notebook, seven cough drops and a photo of a family of four.