Highway horror: Safety concerns reported on vehicle in fatal I-495 crash

SOUTHBORO – A National Grid dump truck hauling a backhoe-loader that toppled and crushed an elderly woman inside a minivan on Interstate 495 in Southboro yesterday was out on a test drive over safety concerns raised by the utility’s workers, a company spokesman told the Herald.

“It was being test- driven at the time of the accident. It’s a new model,” David Graves of National Grid said of what state police reported was a 2010 Freightliner dump truck that was pulling a flatbed trailer with a 2007 Case backhoe-front end bucket loader on top. “We had done test drives following some safety considerations that had been identified by our employees.”

The tragic accident killed Xjaoyun Jiang of Westford, who was in her 70s, police said. She was a back-seat passenger in a 2000 Toyota Sienna minivan driven by Yingzi Wang, 42, also of Westford. Two children, a 10-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl, were also in the van, police said last night.

The elderly woman was pronounced dead at the scene while the driver was flown and the children taken by ambulance to UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, police said. The driver was listed as being in guarded condition last night, a hospital spokeswoman said.

The driver of the truck, Jeffrey Fisher, 49, of Coventry, R.I., was not injured, police said. He could not be reached for comment.

State police spokesman David Procopio said investigators were examining the dump truck for possible mechanical problems, but that it was too early to determine if it had any safety issues. Police are also investigating if the backhoe-loader was properly secured to its trailer or if the driver was at fault.

“We are still investigating to determine why he lost control. We are going to examine his actions, his behavior behind the wheel,” Procopio said. “There are no charges filed at this point but we are not ruling out possible criminal charges.”

Graves could not say what the specific safety issues were, nor whether they may have factored in the fatal crash.

A spokeswoman for the dump truck’s Portland, Ore., manufacturer did not return messages yesterday.

Asked why the National Grid truck driver was towing a piece of heavy equipment during a test drive, Graves replied: “The dump truck would have been used to haul trailers, so they wanted to make sure it was in a configuration that it would be normally used for.”

Police said the truck driver was in the center lane traveling southbound on I-495 in Southboro at 1:15 p.m. when disaster struck.

“He reports that he loses control of his vehicle and the trailer is sort of swaying or fishtailing and somehow the equipment becomes dislodged from the trailer and comes in contact with the Sienna minivan,” Procopio said.

Investigators were not sure if the backhoe-loader, which can weigh as much 20,000 pounds, landed immediately on top of the Toyota minivan, but the initial impact left a debris field of broken glass and car fragments on the highway, he said.

Procopio said both the earth-moving rig and the minivan careened “off the road together,” landing 20 feet down a grassy embankment where the roof of the van was crushed.

Rescuers worked feverishly to free the three surviving occupants as traffic on I-495 was backed up for miles for most of the afternoon.