Eighty-seven-year-old Richard Hildebrand began a wrong-way drive on Interstate 190 that took him beneath the Peace Bridge away from downtown Buffalo, past a number of alarmed motorists, over the South Grand Island Bridge and head-on into a car, killing three young Michigan residents early Monday.
Hildebrand, a Kenmore resident driving his sport utility vehicle northbound in the southbound lanes of the Niagara Thruway, and the driver of the southbound 1998 Toyota Camry survived the collision, about 500 feet north of the Staley Road overpass on Grand Island at about 12:47 a.m., but were listed in critical condition late Monday at Erie County Medical Center's trauma intensive care unit.
State troopers made a desperate attempt to catch up with the errant SUV moments before the crash, after receiving 911 calls from motorists who saw Hildebrand's vehicle. But tragedy struck first, and investigators spent Monday trying to determine why Hildebrand took the wrong route and what caused the fatal crash.
State Police Thruway Zone Sgt. Brian Guise said troopers at the scene could find no evidence of alcohol involvement, while other authorities raised the possibility that Hildebrand may have been disoriented. What he was doing out so late remains unknown.
"He pretty much admitted he was at fault. He said he had been driving for around 3 or 3˝ hours and didn't know where he was," a first-aid responder who was at the crash scene said.
It was estimated Hildebrand was driving at a speed of 60 mph to 65 mph. Investigators have not yet determined where he entered I-190, although they said the exit ramp to Niagara Street on Buffalo's West Side might be a possibility.
West Seneca resident Sam Yurick, 24, said he was on his way home from a late-night ice hockey game in North Buffalo when he saw headlights coming in his direction.
"I was heading south toward the Peace Bridge on the I-190, and I was in the right lane closest to the water with another car ahead of me.
Then I saw bright lights coming toward us down the left lane. They were coming so fast, they just zoomed right by me.
The lights weren't swerving. They just went right by me, and all I could see was that it was an SUV.
"The vehicle went flying by, and it didn't seem the driver had any sense that he was going the wrong way. I thought for sure it was a drunk. Wherever that guy was going, I'm surprised he made 10 miles before hitting someone.
There weren't many cars on the road, but there were some. I was glad I was following someone, but if I had tried to pass, I would definitely be dead. I'm counting my blessings," Yurick said.
Burhanur B. Rahman, 22, of Hamtramck, Mich., was identified as the driver of the Camry that was struck by Hildebrand's SUV. Rahman's passengers, all killed, were identified as Shofiul Alom, 20, and Nazim Khan and Rezwan Chowdhury, both 21. All lived in Hamtramck, a Detroit suburb.
The four had arrived in the Buffalo Niagara region a day or two before the crash and were here to take in the sights, State Police Investigator John J. McCusker said.
Believed to be originally from Bangladesh, the men's relatives have been notified, though a language barrier has delayed obtaining additional information.
At the crash scene, smoke and fire poured out of the demolished vehicles, according to Crystal Kirtz, who lives beside the Niagara Thruway on Grand Island.
"The crash woke me up from a dead sleep. It sounded like someone had hit my fiance's pickup truck with a sledgehammer.
I ran out and flames were coming from under the hood of the SUV and smoke was pouring out of the hood of the car. Maybe six other motorists had stopped and the State Police arrived within a few minutes," Kirtz said.
Grand Island Volunteer Fire Company arrived to find the two drivers out of their vehicles. Hildebrand suffered head and chest injuries, but was standing up with assistance and speaking.
Hildebrand's neighbors said he purchased the white SUV, a Kia Sorento, about two weeks ago, trading up from an older and smaller Chevy Cavalier automobile so that he would have an easier time getting around.
"He was getting sicker as he got older. He was going for dialysis twice a week," said Steve Domroes, whose mother lives in another apartment in the same house as Hildebrand on the first block of West Hazeltine Avenue.
Retired for years, Hildebrand never exhibited any impairments when driving in the neighborhood, neighbor Bob Dalimonte said. "He's a nice guy; he never bothered anybody. He always said hello."
State Police accident reconstruction investigators are reviewing their findings, and McCusker is continuing to interview motorists, including Yurick.
"It was a glancing head-on collision. Indications are that someone, at the last minute, took evasive action," Guise said. "Unfortunately, it is like a game of chicken. You have to make a split-second decision which way you're going to go."
When asked if Hildebrand's advanced age might have been a factor in the crash, the sergeant said Thruway troopers investigate crashes that involve motorists of all ages.
"As far as elderly drivers, all I can say is it's incumbent on family members to address it, if they feel there is an issue," Guise said.
Once the crash investigation is completed, Guise said, the Erie County District Attorney's Office will be presented with the information and make a determination about whether to charge Hildebrand.
Hildebrand, who was alone in his vehicle, as well as Rahman and his front-seat passenger all were wearing seat belts, troopers said. The two men in the back seat of Rahman's four-door Camry were not.
Kirtz, the neighbor, said she has lived on Staley Road beside the Thruway for several years and has never seen a crash of this magnitude.
"I'm shocked anyone made it out alive," she said. "When the fire was extinguished, our whole backyard filled up with white smoke and we had to close the windows to our house. I'm just thankful my 6-year-old daughter didn't wake up."