LINDEN, N.J. (AP) — A car carrying three off-duty New Jersey police officers from a visit to a strip club drove the wrong way down a New York City highway and crashed head-on into a tractor-trailer early Friday, killing an officer and a civilian and critically injuring two other policemen.
Hours before the crash, the officer driving the car posted a photo on his Instagram page of three shot glasses filled with what he identified as “Jack Daniels Fire on the house.” Police said they were investigating whether drinking explains how the group ended up driving north in the southbound lane of the Staten Island highway.
“We were all young once and I’m sure we’ve all done stupid things in our life,” said Linden Police Chief James Schulhafer. “But that being said, because this is an ongoing investigation, it would be way too premature to speculate on what caused this accident.”
The dead were identified as 28-year-old Linden Officer Frank Viggiano and 28-year-old Joe Rodriguez, a former county employee. Both were passengers in the car.
The 27-year-old driver, Pedro Abad, and 23-year-old passenger Patrik Kudlac, also Linden police officers, were listed in critical condition at hospitals on Staten Island. Linden police Capt. James Sarnicki said they have severe and extensive injuries and are fighting for their lives.
Abad’s blood has been drawn, and investigators have applied for a warrant to test his blood-alcohol level, the New York Police Department said.
The truck driver suffered injuries that weren’t believed to be life-threatening.
Video taken by a surveillance camera at a gas station shows a car traveling the wrong way on a service road minutes before the wrong-way crash on the adjacent highway. A southbound exit ramp leads from the highway onto the service road.
Gas station attendant Ramzi Abdelhaq told WABC-TV he’s seen cars traveling the wrong direction on the service road before. The time stamp on the video showing the car reads 4:48 a.m. Police received a 911 call of a crash on the highway at 4:51 a.m.
One tractor-trailer swerved out of the way of the car on the West Shore Expressway on Staten Island, but a second didn’t have enough time to veer away before the crash, Royster said.
NYPD spokeswoman Kim Royster said the car’s black box will help investigators determine how fast they were traveling.
Images of the crash scene show the truck and car smashed against the center guardrail and the car ravaged.
Sarnicki said all three officers were relatively new to the force and were unmarried without children. Viggiano was a five-year veteran, Abad was a six-year veteran and Kudlac had two years on the job.
“At this point our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of Officer Frank Viggiano,” he said, describing him as well-liked by everybody. “This is an unspeakable tragedy.”
Rodriguez’s father, Angelo, called his son “my pal” in an interview with The Associated Press at the family’s home in Linden. He said they planned to go trout fishing in two weeks.
He described his son as well-spoken, well-mannered and always willing to help people. He said his son loved basketball and fishing and had lots of friends.
Rodriguez didn’t seem angry at the driver, saying that “it doesn’t matter if the driver was drinking because accidents happen.” At times, he broke into tears.
“I’m still in shock,” he said. “He ain’t coming home no more.”
Joe’s uncle, Joseph Simone, described him as family-oriented.
“He was too young,” Simone said. “He was too young. I was with him yesterday and he’s gone today.”
Abad posted a photo of the drinks on his Instagram page before the crash that included a caption of a toast he said he had given.
“The 3 of us, are decent people. There’s a decent woman out there for each of us. Sure it’s cool to be single every now and then, but I don’t give a damn what ANYONE says. At the end of the day, I want a family. I want to settle down. We all do. So here’s to finding that which we all hope for.”
Other images on his Instagram page include photos of him serving in the honor guard at the funeral last weekend for a Philadelphia police officer killed in the line of duty.
In his 37 years working for the department, Sarnicki said, he couldn’t remember any officers being killed in the blue-collar refinery town of 41,000 residents just across the water from Staten Island.
“People are in a somber mood. I could see some officers with tears in their eyes. It is an emotional day for all of us. Like I said, we are a family and we’re all hurt by this,” he said. “It’s tragic for people to lose their lives at such an early age, whatever the reason.”
Schulhafer said he addressed some of his officers after returning from Staten Island on Friday morning.
“I told them that this is a day that will live with them for the rest of their lives and I think we’ll all probably have some kind of regret and blame ourselves for something that we may have done or said to those officers to prevent this tragedy,” he said.
Flags in front of Linden City Hall, which are part of a war memorial surrounded by smaller American flags, were lowered to half-staff Friday morning.
“This is devastating, devastating,” said Reese Lospinoso, 57, a bartender who grew up in Linden and has lived here most of his life. “The police in Linden are looked at very, very highly. They’re very well-respected in our town.”