Editor's Note: We have chosen not to correct the term 'ambulance driver' as part of this article deals with the actual vehicle operator.
Basically, nothing went right the evening of Dec. 14, 2010 - the night a drunken, wrong-way driver crashed head on into an ambulance on Interstate 25 in Santa Fe.
Kylene Holmes, the Texas woman who caused the crash, was warned not to drive after leaving a bar with a friend that night. But a state agency is now concerned that neither the ambulance company nor the ambulance driver took proper safety precautions prior to the wreck. A Public Regulation Commission report recently obtained by the Journal indicates that Rocky Mountain EMS, the medical transport company that owns the ambulance involved, either did not reinstall a driver's side airbag that had long been neglected or "did reinstall it but intentionally left it unplugged and inoperable."
In any case, the air bag was not operational at the time of the wreck, according to the PRC report.
The PRC documents also cite evidence that the ambulance driver, 19-year-old Vanessa Carrillo, was not wearing her seat belt when Holmes' Nissan Altima barrelled into her near I-25's Cerrillos Road exit.
Carrillo was left seriously injured after the crash. Holmes, 27, of El Paso - who police say was speeding at more than 100 mph and had been heading south in the northbound lanes of I-25 for about 20 miles - was killed at the scene. Holmes' 38-year-old passenger, Jennifer Michelle Belvin of Oceanside, Calif., was also seriously injured.
A toxicology report later revealed Holmes' blood-alcohol concentration to have been more than three times the presumed level of intoxication for No rules violation a driver.
The PRC report indicates that Rocky Mountain EMS owner Ed Little dragged his feet in addressing a mechanical problem in the ambulance after its air bags accidentally deployed while it was being driven on I-25 more than two years earlier, in May 2008. Former ambulance company employees told PRC investigators that Little intentionally chose to leave the air bag mechanism inoperable, because the problem cost too much to repair, according to the report.
Michael J. Cadigan, an attorney for Rocky Mountain EMS, says the allegations are being trumped up by "disgruntled former employees" of the company and called the PRC report, written by the commission's Transportation Division, "absurd." "The Transportation Division has zero credibility," Cadigan said. "Their version of the facts is clearly erroneous. There's no evidence that anyone did anything intentional. And to suggest that is irresponsible and slanderous."
Cadigan also said the Transportation Division is biased against Rocky Mountain EMS, and that the division director, Larry Lujan, is "inappropriately cozy" with one of the company's competitors. Would it have mattered if the air bag had deployed properly? Yes, according to Carrillo. But not in the way you'd think. "I would have died if they deployed," the petite Carrillo told the Journal on Friday. "So I'm kind of happy they didn't." Carrillo acknowledged that she was not wearing her seat belt at the time of the wreck. Santa Fe Police Chief Aric Wheeler declined to speculate whether the seat belt or the air bag would have lessened or worsened Carrillo's injuries. "I'd just be taking a stab in the dark," he said.
No Rules Violation
Although the PRC report cites mistakes on the part of Rocky Mountain EMS, the company's actions are not in violation of PRC rules, according to the conclusion by the agency's legal division. The PRC started its investigation after the crash to determine whether the ambulance company had complied with its insurance and safety regulations, common practice after all fatal accidents involving PRC-regulated carriers, which include ambulance services.
Rocky Mountain EMS provides ambulance services in Santa Fe, San Miguel and Los Alamos Counties and is looking to expand its coverage area to include Bernalillo and Sandoval Counties. The Transportation Division report indicates concerns over granting permanent authority for service to the new counties, saying the company has "at most, only three functioning ambulances" to serve five counties.
The report also expresses concern over the company's "financial fitness," saying it has "significant debt." Rocky Mountain has temporary authority to provide nonemergency transport service in Bernalillo County that expires March 21. The company can reapply for an extension, but "having a (temporary authority) is no guarantee that permanent authority will be issued," according to PRC public information officer Gerald Garner Jr.
Air Bag Not Obligation
The air bag issue may not end up getting Rocky Mountain EMS in trouble with the PRC.
"After reviewing the allegations, the legal division concluded that current Commission rules do not obligate a motor carrier to reconnect an air bag after it deploys," PRC staff counsel Ryan Jerman said in PRC documents.
The air bag system inside the ambulance became an issue in May 2008, when former EMT Michelle Fick was driving the ambulance from Albuquerque to Santa Fe on I-25. During the drive, "the driver's side air bags suddenly deployed and she lost power to the vehicle," according to a summary of her interview with a PRC investigator. The former EMT, who broke her wrist during the incident, told her supervisors afterward that there were problems with the unit.
Curtis Garand, who once worked as a mechanic for the company, said that, after the ambulance was involved in that accident, it was taken to service center Albuquerque Freightliner for repair. However, Freightliner sent a letter to the company saying the repairs were not covered by warranty and it would cost Rocky Mountain about $5,000 to have the problem fixed.
Garand also said the repairs had still not been made when he was fired by the company in February last year - nearly two years after the incident involving Fick, according to the PRC report.
Another former mechanic, Jordan Liesner, told PRC that in February 2010, he went with a company supervisor to Freightliner to pick up the ambulance and was told "that they did not do any repairs to the unit and did not fix the air bags." Liesner said that Little told him to take the air bags out of another vehicle and put them into the one in question. He said Little also told him "to leave the airbag unplugged until they were able to take it to a dealership in case there were more problems with the air bags."
Cadigan contends the ambulance was taken to a mechanic to be fixed, and "If (the air bag) wasn't put back in or not put back in right, perhaps someone should talk to the mechanic." A PRC investigator met with a Santa Fe police officer who told him that when police "retrieved the driver's side airbag it was not plugged in." The officer also said the "plug to the airbag was burnt," the PRC report said.
Garner said he could not comment on any possible action the PRC might take when it considers the report, saying "that issue would only be speculative."
Carrillo, who has been recuperating at home in La Cienega since the wreck, is trying to regain her strength. She walks with the help of a walker and isn't able to work. She's also getting help for the bad memories of the crash that creep into her head.