Fatal wreck on Fremont Pass snarls traffic near Copper Mountain
A two-vehicle accident on Fremont Pass along State Highway 91 between Leadville and Copper Mountain Resort on Tuesday morning, Feb. 2, took one life and left another suffering serious injuries.
Two men, Eduardo Baltazar Benitez, 23, and Jose L. Perez-Hernandez, 26, both of Leadville, were heading north when Benitez lost control of a 2001 Volkswagen Jetta and skidded on the icy road into the southbound lane of Highway 91, according to Colorado State Patrol (CSP) trooper Nate Reid. The Jetta spun sideways at about 7:10 a.m. when a 2015 Ford F-150 driven by 41-year-old Heather Rath of Alma struck the passenger side of the car.
A call came into emergency services shortly thereafter, with both the CSP and the local sheriff’s office responding. Perez-Hernandez, the passenger, died from his injuries at the scene of the crash. Benitez was immediately transported by ambulance to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco, arriving at approximately 8 a.m. before being transferred by ambulance to St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood in stable condition at 8:30 a.m. for a higher level of treatment.
Meanwhile Rath complained of minor injuries but was not dispatched to the hospital. No charges have been filed yet, though driving too fast for the conditions is being investigated. Neither drugs nor alcohol are suspected in the accident.
The crash led to a closure of the southbound lane impacting commuters with alternating traffic in the single northbound lane starting a little before 9 a.m. Fremont Pass was not fully reopened again until 11:15 a.m. after the accident was cleared from the roadway.
Chain laws were in effect for commercial vehicles on Fremont Pass on Monday, Feb. 1 but had been lifted by the time of the crash. Snow and ice were still present on the stretch of Highway 91 after the area received a dumping of snow from the most recent storm.
The fatal car accident — the second within the community in just 11 days following the death of 26-year-old Blue River resident Chelsea Gold on Saturday, Jan. 23 on Highway 9 just south of Breckenridge — is a reminder to be safe and stay alert while driving. That’s particularly true in the adverse conditions that often arise in the winter, said Summit County Sheriff John Minor.
“This time of year, with slick roads, we’re going to be running from call to call to call, especially with the weather we’ve been having recently,” he said. “Obviously slow down, don’t tailgate and, if someone spins out, leave yourself an out, which is adequate spacing. We do enforce traffic laws, and, if you’re seen doing these things, you’re probably going to get a ticket.”
Sheriff Minor was even directly affected by the recent unfavorable road conditions. His wife was involved in a collision on Swan Mountain Road on Friday, Jan. 29, when another driver coming the opposite direction was traveling too fast for the circumstances, spun out and hit her Hyundai Santa Fe head on. She walked away with only bumps and bruises, and the other motorist was also unhurt, though received a citation.
“I’ve never seen so many airbags,” said Minor, “I had no idea cars had so many. We’re just dealing with a wrecked car, which is frustrating, but it could have been a lot worse. Thank goodness.”
The Summit School District is also quite aware of the ever-changing weather and challenges snow, ice and limited visibility create. So far this year, though, the district has only had to cancel after-school activities a couple times and had one delayed start, but no snow days.
“There are days it’s still snowing, and road conditions are not dry,” said Julie McCluskie, director of communications for the district. “Student and staff safety are the highest priority; we want to make the best decision about students reporting to school, but we do live in a community that has a lot of winter.”
The district looks at a number of factors when considering calling school, including the present and approaching weather, road conditions at around 5 a.m. and closures from state organizations such as the Department of Transportation, on top of forecasts according to the National Weather Service’s website. While it is possible school could be canceled the night before, more often the decision is made by a number of district employees the day of.
“We have told parents and staff if they feel it is unsafe for them to drive due to the conditions, then make that decision for yourself,” added McCluskie. “We do have responsibility to provide education, but nothing is more important than staying safe, and we’d certainly call school if the conditions were bad, the buses couldn’t drive, the students couldn’t drive and there was feet of snow out there.”
With plenty of snowfall likely still to come this winter, officials say staying observant and attentive while driving throughout the mountain region remains the best defense to dangerous weather and conditions.
“Slow it down, and do not tailgate,” reiterated Minor. “If citizens and guests followed those guidelines, we’d see a dramatic reduction of accidents. Make sure your vehicle is in good working condition, with good tires and just be smart.”
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