A 20-year-old Cortez man was killed in a collision Thursday night that shut down U.S. Highway 491 for several hours.
The Colorado State Patrol, the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, the Cortez Fire Protection District and other emergency personnel responded to a crash near the County Road L intersection about 11:16 p.m. Thursday.
Trooper Gary Cutler, a state public information officer, said a Jeep collided head-on with a semitrailer, killing the Jeep’s driver and causing a third vehicle to crash into debris from the two vehicles. The highway was closed in both directions for about five hours while responders cleared the scene.
Cutler said evidence from the scene showed that the Jeep driver, 20-year-old Gabriel Pendergast, was traveling south on U.S. 491 when he swerved across the median and collided with the northbound semitrailer. The truck reportedly went off the road and sent debris across the highway.
Pendergast was not wearing a seat belt, Cutler said, and was pronounced dead at the scene. He was a 2016 graduate of Montezuma-Cortez High School and reportedly was on leave from the 1st Infantry Division, at Fort Riley, Kansas.
The semitrailer driver, 46-year-old Viktor Juhasz of British Columbia, Canada, was wearing a seat belt and sustained minor injuries. The third driver, a 71-year-old California resident named Mary Beth Duke, also had minor injuries.
Cortez Police Lt. Andy Brock said some officers helped Montezuma County Sheriff’s deputies direct traffic while the highway was closed.
“It had traffic blocked up for eons,” he said.
Cutler said part of the reason the road was closed for so long was because the truck leaked fuel, and a hazmat team was called to help clean it up. Cortez Fire Chief Jay Balfour said firefighters were called back to the scene about 4:48 a.m. because the semitrailer collided with a power pole while it was being towed.
Traffic didn’t start moving again until about 6:29 a.m. Friday, when law enforcement officers started letting vehicles through alternating lanes. The highway was fully opened about 7:30 a.m., Cutler said.
State Patrol Capt. Adrian Driscoll said alcohol and speed were considered as possible factors, but the cause of the crash was under investigation and a medical examiner was expected to investigate by midweek. No charges will be filed against either surviving driver.