8News Investigates: Could VDOT Have Prevented a Fatal Accident?

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BRUNSWICK COUNTY, Va. (WRIC)—Some locals
are claiming a tragic crash that took two lives could have been prevented if a
state agency had only listened to the public's warnings.

There is perhaps no greater grief
than that of a mother who loses a child. Grief, what ifs and memories of her
son, Tommy, now consume Carrie Basham's life.

“I'd a gave my life to keep that boy
here,” she said. “It's just hard for me to imagine that I'm never gonna see him
again and I'm never gonna be able to hold him … I think about him 24/7.”

Tommy Ray Matthews, 33, was killed on
May 2, 2013, when the vehicle he was riding in slammed head-on into a giant
fallen tree lying just over a blind hill on Route 46 in Brunswick County.

“He weren't perfect, but he was
mine,” Basham said.

A chaotic scene on a dark country
road claimed two lives: Basham's son Tommy and Sonny Davenport, the boyfriend
of the driver, Sara Turner.

“I lost the love of my life,” Turner
said. “The only thing that saved me was my seatbelt and airbag.”

Like Basham, Turner is also wracked
by what ifs.

“Every time I go by and see the crosses
it really—it eats at me,” Turner said.

What's eating at the victims' loved
ones are questions about why numerous warnings raised about the ancient, fallen
tree were ignored by both Brunswick County and the Virginia Department of
Transportation. Residents who live near the crash scene told 8News
Investigative Reporter A.J. Lagoe
that the tree falling was no surprise.

“No surprise to the people in the
community, because we feared that it might happen anytime for quite a period of
time,” said Wayne Hyde.

Hyde had been sounding the alarm
about the tree, and says it had been leaning toward the road for years.

In March of 2010, VDOT was doing
bridge work right alongside the tree, which was located in VDOT's right of way.
The project map indicates the tree was marked “Preserve.”

An internal VDOT email chain shows that
Hyde went to the department and voiced his concern about the 60-foot oak. A
structural engineer responded saying the oak, “could not be removed without going
outside of the ROW.”

Hyde claims he then got a notarized
letter from the landowner giving VDOT permission to go on to her property to
remove the tree that was within its right of way.

“Landowner did give permission to
remove the tree,” Hyde said.

But nothing was done; records show
that months later, in August of 2010, Hyde stood before the Brunswick County
Board of Supervisors and told them the tree was “causing a traffic hazard and
should be removed.” In January 2011, he raised the same concern.

When asked if the county ever took
any action Hyde answered, “Not until the thing fell and killed two people.”

Robert Bowman,  a VDOT maintenance engineer, said, “We cannot
find anything that we did unusual or that we would have done differently …
Based on the knowledge we had of the tree at the time we were doing the design
work and the indication from the arborist, there were no visual defects on the tree.”

Five days after the deadly crash that
killed Matthews and Davenport, VDOT arborists inspected the tree for the first
time. 8News obtained a “Tree Failure Inspection” that show the more than
100-year-old oak tree was in fact two trees grown together. The trees looked
good from the ground up, but underground were filled with a “significant amount
of rot and decay” and literally “tipped over under their own weight.” The
assessment also states that “a determination needs to be made whether the tree
should remain or be removed then an arborist should be consulted,”—something that
was not done in this case.

Bowman said that VDOT design staff determines
whether or not a tree should be preserved—a decision Basham claims cost her a
son and her grandson a father.

“If they'd have taken the tree down,
they could have saved him,” Basham said. “Could have saved that other little
boy, too … come to find out, VDOT coulda kept my baby here if they'd just done
their job.”

“All ‘cause of a stupid tree,”
Basham said. “Stupid, rotten old tree.”

While expressing sadness over the lives
lost in this tragedy, VDOT's manager also wrote in a report that—knowing what
VDOT knows now—the department's own employees who worked on the bridge project
were in serious danger from the tree resting over them while they worked.

 

Copyright 2013 by Young
Broadcasting of Richmond

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