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Mike Nowatzki, Published February 05 2009

Fargo police won't wait to file report on rut accident

Fargo police plan to file their report on a crash that killed an 8-year-old girl before finding out what’s stored on the data recorders from the three vehicles involved, Chief Keith Ternes said.

On Wednesday, the family of Amanda Leininger, who died as a result of the Dec. 10 crash, gave police permission to retrieve the data recorder from the 1995 Mercury Sable that was carrying the girl in the backseat, Ternes said.

Leininger’s 15-year-old sister, Jessica, was driving the car when it collided with oncoming traffic on South University Drive near El Cano Drive.

Mayor Dennis Walaker has blamed the accident on a rut where the roadway meets the shoulder, based on the initial report he received from police.

Ternes said the Police Department’s software isn’t able to extract recorder data from the Mercury or the other two vehicles, a 2005 Chrysler Town & Country minivan and 2004 Mazda Tribute sport utility vehicle.

The recorders – similar to the “black boxes” on airplanes – will be sent to the vehicles’ manufacturers for analysis, but they aren’t expected to produce information that would alter the findings of the investigation, he said.

Because of its age, the Mercury’s recorder will contain limited data, such as whether the girls were wearing seat belts (investigators already know they were), and likely nothing to help determine the cause of the crash, Ternes said.

“We don’t think it would tell us how fast the vehicle was going or some of the more detailed data that is captured on those data recorders on newer models of vehicles,” he said.

Investigators were able to calculate rates of speed based on interviews with the drivers, the extent of damage to the vehicles and at least one eyewitness account, he said.

Sgt. Ross Renner said he was mistakenly under the impression that the data recorders had already been sent off to be analyzed when he told The Forum as much for an article published Saturday.

Ternes said police have put together a “pretty thorough and comprehensive” investigation without the recorder data.

Still, the recorders will be analyzed – a process that could take weeks or even months – just to be thorough, he said. If investigators believed the recorders contained any relevant information, they would wait before filing the crash report, he said.

Instead, the report is expected to be sent to the Cass County state’s attorney this week or early next week, he said, adding he doesn’t foresee any traffic citations or criminal charges being filed.

“What I’m hoping for – and I don’t doubt that’s what the family is hoping for – is for us to be able to close the investigation and put that part behind us,” he said. “And then of course, from there, what happens between the family and the city and the rut, I mean, that’s outside the purview of the Police Department.”

The rut was a factor in at least three accidents on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before the Wednesday fatal accident, according to police records. A city street crew was en route to fix the rut when the accident happened.

Walaker has said he realizes the city could face a lawsuit over the crash.

The city has hired an independent investigator to determine when city employees knew about the rut and how they responded.

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