Driver saw collision in slow motion

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Defensive habits may have helped

By Roger Snodgrass

It’s a lucky man who survives a head-on collision.

Still a little worse for wear on Thursday, Dave Menicucci, considered himself very lucky after a head-on collision on the main road east of the airport Monday morning.

His main problem came from the passenger restraint system.

“It’s all ribs, because that’s where the seat belt was,” he said. “And the impact from the air bag is more than people think.”

Menicucci is a retired engineer from Sandia National Laboratory, a fishing guide and a bed and breakfast operator in Los Alamos. In recent years, he has contributed several articles to the Los Alamos Monitor, with a focus on Valles Caldera National Monument.

On Monday, he knew he had escaped a very close call, and sent out an e-mail to friends and family with a picture of his truck.

“All of my safety equipment in the Tacoma worked beautifully: The anti-lock brakes, the bags, seat belts, the frontal absorption system,” he wrote. “So I was not terribly injured.”

Trina Hadden, a mobile veterinarian, was driving east in the car behind Menicucci and was one of the witnesses interviewed by the police.

She said she thought Menicucci was turning off on the pull-out at the top of the hill.

“Then, I saw another car coming up but not in the correct lane,” she said in a telephone interview Thursday. “(The oncoming driver) kept going further and further into the wrong lane and she was off the shoulder. There wasn’t anywhere for him to go.”

Menicucci said he only had 2-3 seconds to make a decision.

“I saw her as she was facing me,” he said. “She was gripping the wheel with her eyes wide open. I thought either this woman is dead or she is on a suicide mission.”

Deputy Chief Purtymun said, according to the police report, the other car was a Dodge passenger vehicle driven by an Ojo Caliente woman, age 46.

Purtymun said the woman indicated to the paramedics that she had a medical condition but was unsure if it contributed to the accident.

According to the injury codes, he said, the two drivers were taken to Los Alamos Medical Center where they were treated and released.

Purtymun said the woman was cited for “roadways laned for traffic,” which means that she crossed a double yellow line into the other lane.

“I’m always thinking what could go wrong?” Menicucci said after the accident. “What would I do? How would I bail out? What’s the dangerous part of the road? They say that’s the bane of engineers. They never sleep because they’re worried about things failing.”

He said the natural assumption was to expect the person to realize what has happened and to move back over and make room.

“But she just kept coming,” he said. “I didn’t have anywhere to go – only about a half a lane I could move over.”

He said the crash happened as if in slow motion.

“I was thinking that this was going to be bad,” he said. “The engineer in me said pull off and hit the brakes as hard as I could to reduce the impact.”

After another second for braking, he said, and then there was a collision.

Menicucci praised police officer Monica Salazar, who came to the scene, and the emergency room at the medical center.

“I couldn’t have gotten better care,” he said. “Thirty seconds after I checked in, there was an attendant with a wheel chair for me. Then I had several people hovering over me for an hour – checking every square inch of my body, doing tests, asking probing questions about how I felt, X-rays and the rest – unbelievable to say the least.”

In the email he sent out on the day of the accident, Menicucci had some special advice to all drivers.

“Always prepare for the unexpected and the possibility of instant death on a second’s notice,” he wrote. “I’m not sure how useful that is, but that is how I felt tonight.”