The chain-reaction crash on Interstate 94 this week pushes the death toll for road construction workers this year in Minnesota well above average — and there’s nearly three months to go.
Thirteen workers have been killed so far, compared with nine for an average year, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. It’s the highest number since 17 deaths were recorded in 2007.
The State Patrol is sure of at least one thing about Tuesday’s crash, in which a large commercial truck plowed into a pickup truck slowing down at a construction site. “This crash was preventable,” said Lt. Tiffani Nielson of the State Patrol.
“It is frustrating for construction workers who have to be out in all conditions, all types of weather and they have to focus on what they are doing,” Nielson said. “They can’t pay attention to traffic like we do … they have to focus on what they are doing, and that’s where they have to rely on the public to drive in a safe manner around them.”
The pileup occurred shortly after 2 p.m. on I-94 just west of County Road 81 in Rogers, where a crew was working in the closed-off right lane on a drilling project in preparation for road work starting next year, the patrol said.
The impact in the center lane sent the pickup and the trailer it pulled spinning to the right into two workers standing in the marked-off and “relatively well protected” zone, Nielson said.
Dead at the scene was Vernon C. Hedquist, 59, of Pillager, Minn., an employee of WSB & Associates. Hedquist was operating drilling equipment and had no more than “a split second” to realize what was about to happen, the lieutenant said.
Worker ‘very concerned’
Hedquist, a Sunday school teacher who was looking forward to deer hunting season and his 60th birthday next month, had worked for WSB since 2014 and was a longtime MnDOT employee before that on road crews.
“He absolutely was very concerned about his safety on the job,” Hedquist’s wife, Cindy, said a little more than 24 hours after losing her husband of 34 years.
Co-worker Thomas J. Wood, 64, of Maple Grove, was struck by vehicle debris and hospitalized at Maple Grove Hospital with noncritical injuries.
No other injuries were reported, though vehicles in the work zone also were struck.
The driver of the large truck, Tate R. Doom, 47, of St. Paul Park, works for Vermeer of Minnesota in Burnsville, which sells heavy equipment for recycling and forestry needs. Messages were left with Doom and his employer requesting further information about the crash.
“I would say it’s likely” that Doom will be charged with one or more crimes after the patrol completes its crash investigation and forwards the case to the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, Nielson said.
The wreck occurred even though “the work crew has set up a work zone ... that was required to create awareness of the boring rig and crew,” said Minnesota Department of Transportation spokeswoman Christine Krueger, whose agency hired the crew for the assignment.
Patrol: Distraction a problem
“Work zone safety is everyone’s job,” Krueger said, directing her comments at the driving public. “A moment can save a life.”
Authorities have ruled out alcohol or a medical problem as factors while they pursue the reason why Doom failed to slow to a safe speed.
From 2010 through 2017, there were more than 16,000 crashes in construction work zones on Minnesota roads and highways resulting in 71 deaths and almost 6,600 injuries involving workers and motorists, according to the state Department of Public Safety. The yearly averages since 2010 have been nine deaths and 810 injuries, the agency said.
“Honestly, people are distracted by their phones,” Nielson said. “People are not paying attention. In construction zones there is no barrier.”