As charges were brought against the driver of a Michigan firetruck that crashed Saturday on Interstate 35W in Blaine, killing two firefighters, people in the men’s hometown grieved the loss.
The driver, Micheal Allen Johnson, 28, of Baraga, Mich., said he was sleep-deprived and that he nodded off before the rig went out of control. He also admitted using marijuana and cocaine in the days and hours before the wreck, according to charges filed Monday. He was charged with two counts of criminal vehicular homicide in Anoka County District Court and remains jailed ahead of a court appearance Tuesday.
Johnson was among nine firefighters from the Upper Peninsula community en route to help fight the Box Canyon wildfire in Utah when the truck “struck the median cable barriers, and rolled” at 3:08 p.m. Saturday, according to a State Patrol statement.
Alan Swartz, 25, and James Shelifoe Jr., 23, also of Baraga, were killed. The others on the truck survived their injuries. Two other vehicles that were part of the contingent were not involved in the wreck.
A witness traveling in the same direction told authorities he estimated their speed at 80 to 90 miles per hour in the 70 mph zone and had noticed Johnson’s truck swerve multiple times.
The passengers were members of the Beartown Firefighters, a crew that specializes in fighting wildfires and is run by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
According to the charges, Johnson told officers that he woke up late Friday morning and for the next 28 or so hours had only a 45-minute nap.
Johnson believes “he fell asleep and woke up to his passenger yelling at him as he veered off the road” near 95th Avenue, the complaint read. Toxicology test results are pending.
As soon as the community learned of the crash, the families of the injured were sent to the Twin Cities to be with their loved ones, said Tribal President Chris Swartz, who is a relative of Alan Swartz.
Fundraisers are being held to help the families with expenses. The Baraga Volunteer Fire Department has raised about $9,000 so far, Swartz said.
The two who died will be taken home Tuesday in a “military-style” procession. Traditional native services for Shelifoe will be Wednesday; a funeral will be Thursday for Swartz.
The injured men are still in the Twin Cities, Swartz said. He said the Coon Rapids Fire Department’s help has been invaluable, feeding the families of the injured and helping with hotel costs.