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Mike Nowatzki, Published December 12 2008

Mayor: 'The rut caused the accident'

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said Thursday that a rut in South University Drive caused the fatal accident that left an 8-year-old girl dead Wednesday.

“It caused the accident,” Walaker told KVRR-FOX News at 9. “There’s no question about it. … The rut caused the accident.”

When asked by The Forum after the newscast if he still believed that to be true, Walaker said, “Oh, absolutely.”

Meanwhile, the city of Fargo has hired an independent private investigator to look into when city workers were notified of the rut, City Administrator Pat Zavoral said.

The rut was blamed for accidents Monday and Tuesday mornings. Police are investigating it as one of several possible factors in Wednesday’s accident.

Walaker said police officials told him preliminary reports from the investigation indicate 15-year-old Jessica Leininger was stuck in the rut while driving along University Drive.

“She dropped her wheel into this rut, then she tried to correct and she turned so she was perpendicular to the highway and she was broadsided,” Walaker said.

“It was a significant rut in the shoulder,” he added.

Walaker said the police investigation will continue for a couple of weeks.

City officials say a street crew was en route to fix the rut when the fatal accident occurred about 7:50 a.m. on South University Drive just north of El Cano Drive.

Eight-year-old Amanda Leininger of Fargo died about 2 p.m. Wednesday at Innovis Hospital. Her sister, Jessica, who was driving the Mercury Sable when it was hit, was released from Innovis on Thursday morning.

Zavoral said the city retained an investigator from the Serkland Law Firm in Fargo to look into when the city was first contacted about the rut “and what actions we took.”

The city also is reviewing the matter internally to see if proper procedures were followed, he said.

“(We’re) just trying to find out what went on, and we’re trying to identify other locations in town that might have the same condition,” he said.

Several people contacted The Forum on Thursday and said their vehicles also got caught in the same rut, which was about the width of a tire where the pavement met the shoulder of the road.

Scott Simley, a 34-year-old construction manager from West Fargo, said his F-350 oversized pickup with foot-wide tires got caught in the rut Tuesday afternoon.

“I never felt like I was on the edge of the road at all, and all of a sudden I felt like I got tugged to the right,” he said.

Simley said when he finally steered out of the rut, the pickup slid almost sideways, but he was able to regain control.

“It did kind of freak me out, because I thought as it happened, ‘Boy am I lucky nobody was coming,’ ” he said.

After hearing about Wednesday’s fatal accident, Simley said he felt bad for not reporting the rut.

He said he understands if the city couldn’t fix the road right away.

“My big standpoint is, how much does it cost to put some cones up?” he said.

The city’s initial investigation found that the first call or notification to the city about the rut came Monday night, Zavoral said.

A woman who lives on El Cano Drive called the city about her driveway, and she mentioned the rut as a problem when a street department worker met her about 5:30 p.m., he said. The rut was full of snow at that time, he said.

But Debbie Helbling, the woman who met with the worker, said she called the street department about 4 p.m. Monday to ask the city to clear snow from a temporary road near her house. She said the woman who answered the phone asked her if she was calling about the “potholes” on South University Drive.

Helbling said the street foreman who met her that evening mentioned the rut and that the city may need to lower the 45-mph speed limit on the road. It wasn’t until about 8:30 p.m. that Helbling hit the rut herself, she said.

Police Sgt. Jeff Skuza told The Forum on Wednesday that police notified the street department about the rut after the Monday morning accident in which a car was totaled but the 16-year-old driver wasn’t injured.

Zavoral said most calls about the rut came Tuesday, when the city had already decided to repair it.

City Public Works Manager Al Weigel said the initial plan was to fill the rut with crushed asphalt. But the pile of fill was frozen, so the city pulled a mill machine – typically used during the summer – out of storage to thaw it out, he said. A crew was on its way to repair the shoulder after rush hour Wednesday when the accident happened.

“Again, I think we’re very remorseful for what happened,” Zavoral said. “I mean, the poor timing of us going out there while the accident happened is just regrettable.”

The crew fixed the rut after the accident.

Weigel said Wednesday that he didn’t know how long the rut had been there, but it was probably made before the ground froze.

Ruth Ruch, who lives in south Fargo and drove past the rut every day while taking kids to school, said it was there when school started last fall. She said she’s almost lost control on the rut – even before the snow fell – and has seen other vehicles almost lose control.

“That this child died is completely inexcusable and the engineers of the city of Fargo need to take responsibility for her tragic death, especially since they were aware of how bad that rut was,” she wrote in an e-mail Thursday.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation plans to rebuild and widen South University Drive from two to four lanes between 40th and 52nd avenues next spring or summer, said Kevin Gorder, assistant district engineer.

Forum reporter Benny Polacca contributed to this report

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528