By DAVID PEPIN &
EAST GREENWICH– Thomas Meers had just put his one-year-old daughter back to bed at about 3:50 a.m. Sunday morning and was about to fall back asleep himself when he heard a horrible noise not far from his home at 403 Shippeetown Road.
“If you put your head against a board and somebody hit a baseball bat across it, that’s what it sounded like,” said Meers, East Greenwich Fire District captain. “I just started getting dressed and ran out. I knew it was going to be bad.”
The reality he and fellow EGFD Firefighter Michael J. Monaghan, of 465 Shippeetown Road, found nearly across the street from Monaghan’s home was even more frightening: an upside-down Dodge Ram truck, with two occupants nearly crushed inside and two other occupants ejected nearby.
All were North Kingstown residents.
Pronounced dead at the scene were Michael D. Ruggieri, 19, of 176 West Allenton Road; and Madeline E. Healey, 18, of 30 Dean St.
Nicholas Whiteley, 21, of 1045 Lafayette Road, identified by the East Greenwich Police Department as the driver, was listed in serious condition at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence at press time. Christopher T. Mortin, 19, no address listed, was treated at Rhode Island Hospital and released.
Whiteley is in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, but his condition is improving, said Josh Zalabrowski, a friend of the three male victims.
In a statement releasing the victims’ identities Monday night, local police said the accident remains under investigation, with toxicology reports still to come to determine if alcohol was a factor.
The R.I. State Police and Department of the Attorney General are participating in the investigation, police said in Monday’s statement. An accident reconstruction was held at the site, a narrow rural road with a 25 mph speed limit, on Monday, said police Lt. Jeremy Fague.
“It will be a lengthy investigation, with lots of interviewing to be done,” said Fague.
Both Meers and EGFD Chief Peter F. Henrikson, who arrived at the scene shortly after the accident had been reported, said they saw no evidence of alcohol in or around the vehicle. Monaghan could not be reached for comment.
Having been a friend of Ruggieri since childhood, when they played baseball together, Zalabrowski is in disbelief over what happened to his “best bud.”
“Everyone involved in the accident were overall great people. They were never out for trouble, they just wanted to have a good time,” Zalabrowski said Tuesday.
He fondly recalled one afternoon at his home, which sits on eight acres, when he was riding his dirt bike and Ruggieri wanted to try it out, thinking it would be easy to ride.
“He had no idea how to drive that thing and drove right into a thorn bush. We both laughed for days about that.”
Ruggieri had a memorable time at his senior prom, remembered Adam Dunham, who rode there with him in the same limousine.
“We had such a good time that night,” Dunham said Monday. “He was very smart and on the honor roll. He was just a fun guy to be around, always cracking jokes.”
Dunham said Ruggieri and Healey were among the nicest people he knew in high school.
“I know people say this a lot when someone passes away, but Mike would give the shirt of his back if you needed it,” Dunham said.
Mortin, Zalabrowski said, is “trying to relax and keep his head up.”
For two years, Healey was the fresh young face that would greet customers at The Beach Rose Café in Wickford, and her customers are mourning the loss.
“She was a wonderful employee and it’s a horrific loss to the community,” said Beach Rose owner Tim Sharp, Healey’s boss. “We’re all just rocked and feeling raw. She was fantastic to customers and made being nice effortless.”
Sharp explained that as a small business owner he’d think about the café 24 hours a day, but never had to worry about Healey. She’d come to work on time and work her hardest until it was time to go home, he said.
This Saturday, the café will be closed in her memory.
The vehicle had been traveling southbound when it struck two large rocks on the east side of the road, became airborne, sheared off a telephone pole, and landed upside down on the east side of the road, said police.
Henrikson estimated that the vehicle struck the utility pole 10 to 12 feet above its base.
“It was splintered, like somebody had cut it with a saw,” Meers said.
The pole was replaced on Sunday, but the power lines stayed intact, with no loss of power to the area, Henrikson said.
The force of the collision was still evident Monday morning, with one of the massive in-ground rocks along the front of the 476 Shippeetown Road property having been uprooted by the force of the collision. Near a makeshift memorial at the newly installed utility pole, with a white cross reading “RIP Reggie and Maddie” surrounded by flowers, balloons and candles, pieces of plastic and metal could be found among the brush and leaves.
“The impact ripped off the shock absorbers and the brackets mounted to the axle. The driver’s door had a piece of telephone pole lodged in it,” Henrikson said.
One victim in the road was pronounced dead at the scene, he said, The other, Mortin, was transported by East Greenwich Rescue to Center of New England, from which a Lifestar helicopter carried him to Rhode Island Hospital.
The two passengers were probably thrown from the Ram because of its unusual construction, Henrikson said, citing its lack of a post separating the side doors.
“There’s no post, so the two doors just lock on each other. When the truck flipped, both doors must’ve opened,” he said.
The extrication of the two remaining victims required about 50 minutes and two sets of Jaws of Life, Henrikson said: his department’s and those of the Central Coventry Fire District, which also sent a fire engine and rescue truck to the scene. The Warwick Fire Department also had rescues and engines staged and ready, he said.
“I’ve never seen that much damage to a truck. The roof was crushed down on top of them. They were very compacted, and you couldn’t tell the extent of their injuries,” he said.
The operation required use of two of the Jaws’ three tools, cutters and spreaders, Henrikson said. The ram is used if it’s necessary to dislodge a steering wheel or dashboard.
“You try to remove the vehicle from around the passengers,” he said.
“I’ve seen crash scenes like that, but I’ve never seen such a difficult extrication,” said Meers, a 20-year EGFD veteran as full-time and call firefighter. “You just try to figure out what resources you have and what resources you need.”
The funeral for Ruggieri will be held tomorrow morning at 8:45 a.m. at the Russell J. Boyle & Son Funeral Home in Warwick, with a mass of Christian Burial following at 10 a.m. at St. Bernard Church on Tower Hill Road.
Healey, meanwhile, will be laid to rest on Saturday with her mass taking place at 10 a.m. at St. Bernard Church.