Tragedy on Avon Mountain – Ten Years Later

Smoke, Fire and Angels
Smoke, Fire and Angels by Mark Robinson

This is a true story about real people, the best and the most irresponsible among us. It’s about what happened before, during and after one of the worst crashes in Connecticut history. It’s about innocent victims and heroes – everyday people.

Commuters take traffic for granted.  We know the ins and outs, the pitfalls and shortcuts we can take traversing to work on a daily basis. Sometimes we are lulled into a sense of complacency about it all. Our small State of Connecticut actually has 3,734 route miles or 9,834 lane miles consisting of start roadways with only 21% built after 1980, 4,000 bridges maintained by the state with a third built before 1950.  It is reported that we spend an average of a full work week, 40 hours in traffic per year with a projected cost of $1.6 billion lost in wasted fuel and time.

The human stories will be told eloquently by survivor and author Mark Robinson on Shattered Lives Radio and throughout the pages of his award-winning book, Smoke, Fire and Angels Tragedy on Avon Mountain and the Life Changing Aftermath. The victims range from fine upstanding citizens making their daily contributions, to a truck driver trying to get his life in order, to a father with five adorable  girls who wore matching tool belts when they made bird houses together in their workshop.

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They included Barbara Bongiovanni, 54, of Torrington, Maureen Edlund, 60, of Canton, and Paul A. “Chip” Stotler, 42, of New Hartford – died in the crash, along with the truck driver, Abdulraheem Naafi, 41, of Hartford.

Frank Juan, Jr with a 35 year career as a bus driver suffered a broken neck and spinal cord injuries and was unconscious until Sept. 5, 2005, then underwent months of rehabilitation, and ultimately died of his injuries in March, 2008.

This is to set the stage, a preview with selected fascinating facts if you will, for a tribute podcast concerning the horrible crash that occurred on the infamous Avon Mountain on Route 44 on Friday, July 29, 2005.   There are many facts, there is much human emotion, there is greed, legal loopholes, circumstances that set in motion a runaway train, that was in reality a dump truck  that careened out of control and needlessly took 5 lives and injured 23 in this one event, not to mention many other accidents that came before it.

  • The man ultimately responsible was a business owner, David Wilcox who in effect tried to reinvent his trucking business filing under new names when he got into trouble “like lipstick on a pig” whose  bad deeds caught up with him. Playing ‘fast and loose’ with human lives.
  • The State of Connecticut legislature figured prominently with a legal loophole stemming from a 1993 law that essentially turned a blind eye regarding notification to the DMV  insurance coverage lapses for trucks and commercial vehicles only,  but not for private passenger vehicles.
  • As early as 1984, the American Association of State and Highway and Transportation Officials recommended that truck ramps be built on the mountain to deter such accidents, but it was not done.
  • Wilcox suspended insurance coverage from Arcadia Insurance in Westbrook Maine seven months before the crash and received a refund check of $40,000. In a flurry of calls hours after the crash he and his wife, Donna, and other employees tried unsuccessfully to reinstate the coverage and cover it up.
  • Lawsuits by victims of the crash were entrenched in whether there were design flaws, inadequate statues covering such debate and just what can the state be sued for, not falling under the precious sovereign immunity ruling  Remember the Charla Nash case?
  • Abdulraheem Naafi, 41, was the dump truck driver who perished in the crash in the crash, had a lengthy criminal record and was aware that the truck had no brakes.
  • American Crushing was forced to take 19 of its 33 vehicles taken out of service following poor inspections during the 24 months before Sept. 24, 2005. Mathematically, 57.6 percent of its trucks were out of service, which is more than double the national average rate of 22.9 percent.
  • Internet research revealed that it is possible to match identifying codes printed on trucks with a national data base in order to identify uninsured drivers.  However, it appears that was not done in this case, or as a matter of routine.
  • In 2005, David Wilcox was charged with four counts of second degree manslaughter, and five counts of first degree assault. In exchange for guilty pleas he was given the maximum of six years in prison in June 2009.
  • His son pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence and was given probation. His wife Donna pleaded no contest to insurance fraud and attempted larceny and was given probation
  • In 2008, the State of Connecticut finally constructed a runaway truck ramp making the route somewhat safer than it had been previously.
  • (Note: as the author of this blog I will respectfully seek copies of victim impact statements as a matter of public record in an effort to stress the importance of this vital right for all victims of crime and to remind criminals with no conscience like David Wilcox, who, as the judge said, “played Russian Roulette for years with the lives of others.”
  • For anyone who is a victim of crime and may need my services, please contact me for Victim Impact Statement Services.
  • Post  Script-  Lawsuits Lost – August 13, 2014

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that victims of the 2005 fiery crash at the bottom of Avon Mountain that killed four people and injured many others, cannot sue the state on allegations that Route 44 had a dangerously steep design and lacked adequate safety measures.

Justices said in a 5-1 decision, dismissing two lawsuits that the alleged poor design of the road and lack of warning signs and other safety measures did not make the highway defective under state law. Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers wrote, “…the allegations did not fall within the exemptions to the state government’s immunity from lawsuits.”

Mark Robinson presents his book Smoke, Fire and Angels
Mark Robinson presents his book Smoke, Fire and Angels

Mark Robinson was in front row of traffic that morning; he broke 9 bones and punctured a lung; he is incredibly lucky to be alive. Mark is currently director, internal communications, ING, in Windsor, Connecticut. He has a communications background; that experience plus direct involvement in crash add up to a unique opportunity to provide a first-person account and to get access to behind-the-scenes information, including the personal stories of victims and their families.

Robinson’s mission using the proceeds of his book, Smoke, Fire and Angels:

Honor the memories of those who died as a result of the crash: Chip Stotler, Maureen Edlund, Barbara Bongiovanni, Abdulraheem Naafi and Frank Juan.

Raise money for victims of the crash. In addition to the devastating loss of loved ones, victims’ families have also suffered tremendous financial hardships.

Honor the courage and kindness of the emergency services people and Good Samaritans.

Raise awareness about importance of road safety.

Tell the amazing story of what happened that day

Shattered Lives Radio




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