Couple killed in fiery I-65 accident

Published 1:51 am Wednesday, January 5, 2000

By By Lori Dann
Advance Managing Editor
Alabama State Troopers have still not identified the victims of a fiery one-vehicle wreck which occurred on Interstate 65 south of Atmore Sunday afternoon.
The bizarre incident began when the driver of a Toyota minivan apparently had a blowout and veered off the road, slamming into a tree. Witnesses said the incident ended when the driver, realizing his passenger was dead and that he would not be able to escape the burning vehicle, pulled out a gun and shot himself.
State troopers said the van was registered in Tennessee, but could not release the names of the male driver and female passenger pending identification and notification of family members. Both bodies were burned beyond recognition.
Robert P. Sanford of Ashville was traveling northbound on I-65 and had just entered Escambia County when he saw the van in the left-hand lane. As a tractor trailer in front of him passed the van, Sanford said he noticed that the right front of the vehicle was bouncing. Wanting to distance himself from the vehicle, Sanford also passed him.
Seconds later, he heard a pop, then saw the van leave the roadway.
Sanford said he immediately pulled over and put his car into reverse. After backing up about 400 yards, he raced down the embankment to check on the occupants. A fire had already started behind the driver's seat and both of the people inside were trapped. He said the driver was conscious.
He ran to the other side of the vehicle, but the fire was getting worse. When another car pulled over, he ran over and asked if they had a fire extinguisher.
Paul Clemmons, a registered nurse from Tennessee, was a passenger in the car which had stopped. He asked the driver to call 911 and then he, too, went to the vehicle to try to help rescue the passengers. Unable to open either door, he asked Sanford to retrieve a tire iron to bust out the windows.
Clemmons said the woman in the passenger's seat had suffered massive head injuries. When he went to check for a pulse, he discovered that she was dead.
As Sanford began coming down the hill with the tire iron and Clemmons left the vehicle, both heard a shot. On the cellular phone inside the second vehicle, the 911 dispatcher also heard the shot, followed by Clemmons' scream, "Oh my God, he shot himself."
Responding to the accident were members of the Poarch Fire Department, Atmore Fire Rescue, Alabama State Troopers, Escambia County Sheriff's Department, Atmore Ambulance and Atmore Police Department.
As troopers surveyed the scene and rescue personnel used the jaws of life to extricate the victims, three other accidents occurred nearby. No one was seriously injured.
Sanford and Clemmons both said they are having a hard time getting past the incident, even though Clemmons has worked with LifeFlight in Tennessee, Clemmons said his girlfriend was particularly shaken by the scene.
Clemmons said he wants to write the family of the victims and tell them the circumstances of the incident. He wants them to know how brave the driver was and how concerned he was with everyone else involved.
Sanford said the driver was not at fault for the accident.

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