A Black Ice Tragedy: An expectant mother’s unexpected death

8 mins read
Paul H. Mills

It is no doubt one of the more heart-rending tragedies in Maine in recent days. It is sunrise, Monday, Jan. 22. An expectant mother, driving herself to the hospital where she is due to give birth is instead herself killed. Demonstrating at least for a time the resiliency of life, the child survives after having been delivered by Caesarian section a short time after the mother herself had already been pronounced dead.

Meet 28-year old Desiree Strout of Canann. Already the mother of two girls, Strout was driving both herself, her husband, 29-year old Harry Weeks, and the couple’s eight year old daughter west-bound on U.S. Route 2 in the outskirts of Skowhegan. Hopes that the infant would himself recover were dashed three days later with his death in a Bangor hospital. The husband, though suffering from a punctured lung and lacerated liver, is expected to survive as is the eight year old daughter. (A younger two year old daughter was not in the vehicle at the time.)

Skowhegan Police Chief David Bucknam did not attribute the accident to any overt negligence – she was traveling under the 50-mile an hour speed limit. It occurred at a point where Strout was halfway between her home in Canaan and her intended destination. This was Skowhegan’s Reddington Fairview Hospital just five miles away.

There are only a few parallels for such a grievous event.

Among them is the saga just two years ago in Bellvue, Colo. There, Jill Schmucker and her husband Tony, were on the way to the hospital to have their own third child delivered when Mr. Schmucker suffered a sudden and mysterious ailment, likely either a seizure, brain stroke or aneurysm, while driving the family to the hospital. This was just after Jill herself had already gone into labor.

As the result of Tony’s own abrupt emergency the SUV flipped over and into a ditch. He was unconscious and died soon thereafter. His wife, unable to move, was able to direct their six year old son to retrieve her husband’s cell phone from his father’s pocket and call 911. This he did, resulting in the arrival of responders who took her to the hospital where an emergency C-section was performed that resulted in the birth of the couple’s third son.

Suffering from a broken back, Jill reported after her recovery that “I got several miracles, three perfect boys that were barely even bruised. And I’m here and I’m walking which is a miracle. I just didn’t get that one last miracle that I would have loved to have.”

Not so fortunate as the Colorado Schmuckers were the experiences of a 21-year old Brooklyn, New York couple on a snowy evening in early March 2013. Raizy and Nathan Glauber were passengers being rushed by a livery cab to a hospital because the 24-week pregnant Raizy could no longer feel the couple’s child, their first. The cab in which they were riding was struck broadside by a sedan. Though in the immediate aftermath Mrs. Glauber was conscious and able to speak to ambulance attendants, both were pronounced dead on arrival by the time they reached the hospital. Like Desiree Strout, however, her child was delivered alive even after the mother’s death. Also, like Ms. Strout’s child, the Glauber infant lived only a short time after his delivery, in Glauber’s case just over a day.

Two years later, the driver of the sedan that struck the Glauber vehicle, Julio Acevedo, 44 at the time of the accident, was sentenced to a 25 year to life prison term for second degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in connection with the deaths. Besides going 60-miles and hour or twice the legal speed limit, his carelessness was further aggravated by having fled the scene – and remaining a fugitive out of state for several days – not to mention a previous manslaughter conviction.

The culprit in the Skowhegan mishap that claimed the lives of Ms. Strout and her son was not so obvious. Nor will it be eligible for jail time. It’s a cause of accidents in Maine this time of year that can suddenly overwhelm even the most experienced and cautious drivers: black ice.

According to Channel 13 Chief Meteorologist Charlie Lopreti, the Strout tragedy occurred at a prime time for the development of this treacherous condition. In an e-mailed analysis sent last week to this columnist, Lopresti reported that the black ice – likely formed by a melting from surrounding snow banks – occurred in part because of warm melting temperatures, which hit 41 degrees the day before followed by an overnight “hard freeze” by Monday morning. By then the temperature was about 24.

Two other factors were “the lack of significant wind” which was only about four to eight mph and high relative humidity, which according to Lopresti was between 60% and 70% in the area. These conditions “would have made it hard for road surfaces to dry up the morning of the accident,” Lopresti told this columnist.

Lopresti and other experts thus warn that the time to be most on guard is in the early morning – the same time as the Strout accident. This is when air temperatures go up faster than pavement temperatures themselves, thus creating an ideal time for forming black ice.

Besides maintaining extra vigilance in the early morning, other black ice safety tips include:

    • Keep a five second following distance from the vehicle ahead;
    • Don’t hit the brakes; just hold the steering wheel in a steady fashion;
    • Watch out for bridges and overpasses, both a popular refuge for black ice;
    • If you feel your car slipping, don’t overcorrect the steering;

It is then one of mother nature’s most hidden weather conditions that has just robbed a promising family in Central Maine of both its mother and its new born child.

The tragedy is also – as with those occurring with the Schmuckers in Colorado and the Glaubers in New York – a further reminder of how profoundly sudden and mysterious are the harrowing changes that can so suddenly devastate what should be one of the most hopeful and auspicious times in a young family’s life.

Paul H. Mills, is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: pmills@myfairpoint.net.

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