John Huffman, with his wife, Maureen, says firefighters can go over the speed limit, but not the nearly 100 mph cited by investigators at the crash.
Ian Huffman died and his girlfriend, Olivia Duty, was injured.
Maureen Huffman placed this cross at Portage River South Road and State Rt. 19 in memory of the crash.
ELMORE — Ian Huffman's size 12 flip-flops still sit by the door on the front porch of his parents' home, his girlfriend's tiny white slip-ons right beside them.
John and Maureen Huffman have been unable — unwilling, perhaps — to move the shoes their son and Olivia Duty left there on July 16. The two had gone out to dinner that evening in Port Clinton, then drove to Sandusky to see some friends before Ian left for law school.
On the drive home, Ms. Duty's small car was struck from behind by a pickup truck investigators say was traveling at speeds approaching 100 mph. The driver, Timothy L. Johnson, 41, of Oak Harbor, was northbound at about 11 p.m. on State Rt. 19 on his way to the Portage District fire station in Oak Harbor after the department was called on to bring an aerial ladder truck to a fire that would destroy Tim & Deanna's Recreation, a bowling alley, in neighboring Clay Center.
Ian, 24, was killed instantly. Ms. Duty, who was 20 at the time, was seriously injured.
Mr. Johnson, who suffered minor injuries, is scheduled to stand trial in Ottawa County Common Pleas Court July 11 on felony charges of aggravated vehicular homicide and aggravated vehicular assault. The 11-year member of the Portage Fire District is charged with "recklessly" causing the death of Ian Huffman and the injuries to Ms. Duty.
To the Huffmans, recklessness goes without saying.
"I blame him for going so fast," said Ms. Huffman, a sculptor who has placed a white cross cemented into a pot at the site of the crash about eight miles east of their home in Elmore.
"There's a regulation that they're supposed to follow too. They can go over the speed limit, but not that much. It's ridiculous. It doesn't make sense."
She speaks quietly about the tragedy that took their only child from them, a scholar who loved learning, a young man who enjoyed making people laugh. Her husband, a personal injury lawyer in Toledo, has channeled his grief into doing what he does for a living: investigating every possible angle of what happened that night.
"The most obsessive thing for me was I needed to know if Ian suffered. I needed to have that answer," Mr. Huffman said.
A search for answers
He spoke with the Ottawa County coroner and got a copy of the autopsy report. The extent of his son's injuries was enormous, but the Huffmans were assured he died instantly from the impact. It was a comfort somehow.
What Mr. Huffman has learned about the crash bothers him intensely.
It was just before 11 p.m. when Ms. Duty drove up to State Rt. 19 from Ottawa County Road 17 just south of Oak Harbor. It's a dangerous intersection, locals say, because motorists approaching Route 19 from the east or west have to travel about 140 feet on Route 19 to proceed west on Portage River South Road or east on County Road 17.
Ms. Duty, who was wearing her seat belt and had not been drinking, said she stopped at the stop sign at Route 19, looked left, right, and left again before turning right. She said she saw no headlights from either direction. As she began turning left onto Portage River South Road, her car was slammed from behind by Mr. Johnson's pickup and pushed into a field.
Ms. Duty, who sustained a broken pelvis and hip, a lacerated liver, and head trauma, said she never heard a siren, never saw a flashing light, though Mr. Johnson and several witnesses confirmed that both were operating.
"I blame not only [Mr. Johnson], but I blame the entire culture that has been created for volunteer fire," Mr. Huffman said. "There is no checks and balances, there's no policing, there's no enforcement. Imagine what happens. Do you think a local cop who knows these guys is going to stop someone? It just doesn't happen."
He rejects the idea that people want firefighters to race to the fire department, that doing so will save lives or property.
"It's simple resource management," Mr. Huffman said. "They had to pay out more money that night to these other guys to respond to Ian's crash. If the guy had done 60 mph, Olivia's not permanently injured. Ian's not dead, and this ladder truck gets there 12 seconds later."
Portage District Fire Chief John Humphrey, a member of the department since 1974, said he routinely talks to his 29 firefighters about driving safely and adhering to the department's guidelines that say firefighters may drive 10 mph over the posted speed limit on the way to a call. He said most follow that.
"The new guys are very, very gung-ho. That's why we sit on them," Chief Humphrey said. "We talk to them about driving up here. The biggest thing we say is, if you get in an accident coming to the scene, you've just split our department in half. … We want you to be very, very careful responding to a scene. That's something we tell everybody — from brand new on up."
Mr. Johnson, he said, was not one who needed to be reminded. He had never been in an accident coming to a fire, never been counseled for driving too fast, never had been disciplined by the fire district.
"If anybody told me he was going 98 mph, I'd call them a liar," Chief Humphrey said. "I personally don't believe it."
Mr. Johnson's speed is expected to be a key part of the criminal case.
An Ohio Highway Patrol crash reconstruction report submitted to the Ottawa County Prosecutor's Office stated that the airbag control module — a black box type device — from the firefighter's pickup indicated he was traveling 98 mph just five seconds before impact and had slowed to 83 mph one second before the crash. The reconstructionist concluded that Mr. Johnson was moving between 65 mph and 83 mph at the time of impact.
For his part, Mr. Johnson told investigators in an interview after the crash that he wasn't sure how fast he was going.
"I wasn't watching my speedometer, probably 70 mph," he told them.
He said he first saw Ms. Duty's car when it pulled onto State Rt. 19 from County Road 17. "I swerved to the left, and that was it," Mr. Johnson said.
Asked if he considered his response to the fire call to be "in a manner considering due regard for public safety," he said, "Yes. I was trying to be cautious."
Andrew Bigler, an assistant Ottawa County prosecutor who is working on the case with special prosecutor Ken Egbert, Jr., declined to comment on the accident reconstruction report or elaborate on the state's case against Mr. Johnson, indicted by an Ottawa County grand jury in November.
"We have our theory of the case that we will present at the trial, but the determination of what is ‘reckless' is made by the jury," Mr. Bigler said.
Tiffin attorney Dean Henry, who is representing Mr. Johnson, said the speed estimates he has seen in reports vary widely and he's not certain which are accurate.
"It's going to be a big factor for the state of Ohio, I know that," he said. "That's what they're hanging their hat on. That's the only evidence of recklessness. There's no suggestion as to any other element of recklessness."
Mr. Johnson, according to reports, had not consumed alcohol, though he was not wearing a seat belt. Mr. Henry described his client as quiet and laid back, a guy who goes to work at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant and comes home to spend time with his children.
"We're definitely going to be contesting the speed issue, No. 1; the cause of the accident, No. 2," Mr. Henry said.
The case has attracted the interest of volunteer fire departments as well as the small communities where the victims and the defendant live.
Ottawa County Common Pleas Judge Bruce Winters recused himself, he said, because he has known Mr. Johnson for years, he went to law school with John Huffman, and he lives in Oak Harbor and was a founding member of the Portage Fire District. Retired Judge Paul Moon was appointed to the case.
"I think I can be fair, but somebody won't be happy with the decision and there's a lot of things people can point to," Judge Winters said. "I just didn't feel comfortable."
Just four days before the fatal crash, Mr. Huffman had brought his son to the court to meet the judge. Ian, a graduate of Woodmore High School and Ohio State University, had been admitted to Case Western Reserve law school in Cleveland where he planned to study international law.
Ottawa County Prosecutor Mark Mulligan also recused himself, in part, he said, because as the county prosecutor, he serves as legal counsel for the Portage Fire District.
A focus on safety
Area fire officials say they stress safety constantly.
"Safety is our No. 1 thing. We are interested in the safety of our firefighters, and that's going to, on scene, and returning from any incident," said Russell Gronbach, president of the Northwestern Ohio Volunteer Firemen's Association and a firefighter in Northwood. "We watch these things closely. We have classes on it. Since I've been involved, I preach it."
Rossford Fire Chief Jim Verbosky teaches a 36-hour volunteer firefighter certification course for the Bowling Green State University State Fire School. He said firefighters who respond to calls from home must have their personal vehicle inspected annually, use their lights and sirens when responding to calls, and, in most departments, travel no more than 10 mph over the posted speed limit.
Ohio law exempts emergency and public safety vehicles from most basic traffic rules when they are responding to emergency calls but cautions that firefighters are not relieved "from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons and property upon the highway."
"I can only speak for my department, but we stress safety on a weekly basis," Chief Verbosky said. "We stress to the guys coming down to make sure they're following the law and they're safe coming down. Fortunately for me, I've got people who live real close."
For rural fire departments such as the Portage District, which covers the village of Oak Harbor and all of Salem Township, some firefighters like Mr. Johnson drive five miles or so from home to the station. "When you go to a mutual-aid call and there's only five seats on the fire truck, what are you going to do to get down to the station? You're going to jump on that accelerator and go," Chief Verbosky said. "Unfortunately that's the way it is.
Unfortunately in this instance it cost somebody their life."
Chief Humphrey said there is no good outcome to the case. "Nothing is going to bring this gentleman back. That's the sad part about this," he said. "I'm guessing she made errors and Tim made errors, and they cost this young man his life."
Mr. Huffman said he'd like to think the case will have an impact on "rogue" firefighters who give the fire service a bad name.
"This maybe sounds contrived," he said. "It's not, but maybe we're going to end up saving someone else's life."
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6129.
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