This article was updated on goerie.com on July 10, 2017 by Tim Hahn.
Something caused a sport-utility vehicle occupied by three older Erie men to speed down West 12th Street, travel through a red light at Cherry Street and slam into the side of a truck trailer Friday afternoon, killing the occupants and leaving behind a horrific scene.
The answer to the question why remained elusive on Sunday, as the identities of the victims became known.
Erie County Coroner Lyell Cook spent the day tracking down and contacting loved ones of the victims before confirming late Sunday afternoon that those killed were Oscar Johnson, 65; Willie M. Byrd, 72; and Charles Barnes, 65. The three men lived at Methodist Towers, at West Eighth and Sassafras streets, Cook said.
Johnson, Byrd and Barnes were in a Hyundai Santa Fe, which Cook said authorities believe belonged to Johnson, that crashed into the trailer of a USF Holland semi as the Hyundai traveled west on West 12th Street at about 2 p.m. Friday. Witnesses told police the Hyundai was speeding and weaving in traffic, and it went through a red light at Cherry Street, before it struck the side of the northbound tractor-trailer, which had the green light.
There was no evidence of braking by the Hyundai before it hit the trailer, said Erie police Sgt. Jeff Annunziata, who is investigating the crash. The trailer’s rear wheels locked after the SUV went under it because the brake hoses were severed, and the trailer was almost cut in half in the crash, he said. The roof of the SUV was torn off and embedded into the side of the trailer.
Cook ruled the cause of death for the three men as massive blunt-force trauma with fragmentation. He said part of the remains of one man was found inside the SUV. Two other men were ejected during the crash, and their remains were found in a debris field that was strewed for more than half a block west of the crash scene, between Cherry and Poplar streets.
Authorities said identifying the victims was challenging because of the conditions of the bodies, and because none of the men were found with wallets or identification. Clothing was used in helping to identify at least some of the victims, Cook said earlier Sunday afternoon.
Among those grieving the loss of Johnson, Byrd and Barnes on Sunday was the Rev. Michael Coles, of House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church on East 21st Street. Byrd was a deacon at the church and Johnson was an usher, and Byrd and Johnson had recently brought Barnes to the church, Coles said.
“It’s devastating,” he said.
Investigators had not determined Sunday what led to the crash, or who was driving the Hyundai at the time.
Police have reviewed surveillance video that captured different angles of the crash from cameras near the scene. Annunziata said Sunday that he is looking for more surveillance video, including from cameras along Sassafras Street, as investigators believe the Hyundai possibly traveled south on Sassafras Street before it turned west onto West 12th Street before the crash.
Investigators hope additional surveillance video will also help them determine where the three men were seated in the SUV, Annunziata said.
Police have collected a dozen statements from witnesses to the crash, and there are more statements to gather, Annunziata said. Police also have the SUV and are investigating the vehicle, he said.
The driver of the tractor-trailer was not injured in Friday’s crash. Also uninjured was the male driver of a Scion that was traveling west on West 12th Street and was about 50 feet past the intersection when it was struck by the Hyundai after the Hyundai went under the truck trailer. The Scion came to rest against a building on the north side of West 12th Street, facing east. The Hyundai continued traveling west before it came to rest on the north side of West 12th Street a few hundred yards west of the intersection.