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Truck Driver Charged in Horrific Wreck

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DURHAM — Esau R. Dixon has told investigators that his last memory before Friday's horrific crash on Interstate 85 in Durham County was of a white van cutting off his truck. So far his version has not been confirmed, but officers have said he was driving faster than the 45 mph speed limit. The crash, which many rescuers called the worst they have ever seen, killed six patients from a state mental hospital and injured 15 others. The four-vehicle accident occurred just before construction work on the busy highway.

Dixon, 57, has been charged with six misdemeanor counts of death by motor vehicle and was released on $10,000 bond after being charged. There were no signs that he had been using alcohol or drugs. He is from Montross, Va.

Melissa Smith was driving a few cars back from the tractor-trailer, and witnessed the accident. She says it was a sight she'll never forget.

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``This is the worst we've seen in our careers,'' said Sgt. Larry Davis, who was surveying the wreckage Friday night with other troopers at the scene.

Five people were declared dead at the scene, and a sixth died later at Duke University Medical Center.

The accident occurred about 5:30 p.m. near the Glenn School exit of I-85 in northern Durham County, just before the four interstate lanes merge into one going each direction in a construction zone.

Renee Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the Highway Patrol, gave this account of what happened:

The tractor-trailer was traveling in the right, northbound lane of the four-lane I-85. The tractor-trailer collided first with one van before it hit the Umstead van. The tractor-trailer and the Umstead van then both crossed the median, into the southbound lanes and off road. The van first struck by the tractor-trailer also struck a sport-utility vehicle and a third van.

Twenty-two people were involved in the wreck, Hoffman said.

Seven people remain hospitalized with serious injuries. Kenneth Davis, 36, of Durham, was driving the first vehicle hit by the truck. Davis is in very critical condition at Durham Regional Hospital. His toddler son Leonard, being treated for head injuries, is in fair condition at Duke Hospital.

Davis' van then hit a Nissan Pathfinder that held a family of four from the Bronx, NY. The two children were injured, but not seriously.

The truck, meanwhile, was careening into the Umstead van, which took the full force of the tractor-trailer. The cab of the truck rolled over half of the van and came to rest on top of it, crushing most of the rear. All of those killed had been sitting in the back of the van.

"People were hollering and begging for help," said Sgt. Larry Davis of the Highway Patrol. "One lady there in the van was yelling that her friend had died. She was crying and she said, 'And I am going to die, too.' And that woman did, in fact, die."

Dixon, who was driving the truck to Maryland, was not injured, the Highway Patrol said. Dixon has driven large rigs for 29 years without an accident. He is described by his boss at JMX trucking in La Plata, Md., as very distraught over the accident. "I'm sure this is going to prey very big on his mind, regardless of who is at fault," said John G. Jamison, president of the company.

Jamison said Dixon was virtually incoherent when he called from the Durham County Judicial Building around 3 a.m. Saturday. "I couldn't make a whole lot of heads or tails out of the conversation," he said. After meeting with company officials in La Plata Saturday morning, Dixon was sent by them to a private clinic for drug testing. He then headed for his home, and has been ordered by company officials not to discuss the accident.

About a dozen law-enforcement and emergency agencies involving more than 100 people were at the accident scene. Because the accident occurred right at shift change for many rescue crews, double the usual number of EMT and rescue personnel responded.

Bill Jones, a spokesman for the state Division of Highways, said no construction was going on right at the accident site, and arrows and lights preparing drivers to merge were working.

``We have had people on the scene making sure our warning system was operating, which they were,'' Jones said.

Traffic in the northbound lanes re-opened after being closed for four hours. Southbound lanes opened about midnight Friday.

John Umstead Hospital is one of the state's four major psychiatric hospitals and serves 500 patients from 16 counties in the north-central part of the state