DURANGO The Colorado State Patrol has asked engineers to investigate why two vehicles caught fire in a triple-fatal crash west of Durango.
The two survivors of the head-on collision March 22 on U.S. Highway 160 suffered burns over 60 percent of their bodies. They remain hospitalized and have undergone skin grafts, a family spokesman said Friday.
Meanwhile, details about the man suspected of causing the crash David James Hooper, a former Farmington Police Department officer continue to surface. Hooper had a valid New Mexico drivers license despite being arrested five months earlier on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs.
The crash occurred about 5 p.m. on U.S. Highway 160 near mile marker 69, about three miles west of Hesperus and seven miles east of Mancos Hill.
A large black mark scars the highway where the cars burned.
Hooper was driving a gray 2011 Chevrolet pickup westbound when he crossed the double-yellow line and entered the eastbound lane, colliding head-on with a 2008 Toyota FJ Cruiser, according to a State Patrol report.
Hooper was killed in the accident.
The FJ Cruiser was occupied by a family of four from Colorado Springs. The driver, Robert Bobby McDonald, and his son Jaden, 10, were killed in the crash. Bobbys wife, Leslie Wachter McDonald, and another son, Kellen, 12, escaped the fiery crash but suffered burns over 60 percent of their bodies.
Leslie McDonalds condition has been upgraded from critical to satisfactory, said a spokesman at UNM Hospital in Albuquerque.
Kellen McDonald remained in critical but stable condition in a Salt Lake City hospital as of Thursday, said Don McDonald, a relative in Florida.
The biggest issue is the smoke damage and burns to Kellens lungs, Don McDonald wrote in an email to the Herald. He has inflammation, fluid buildup and an infection in his lungs that they are treating. Both still have months of care ahead to treat the massive burns.
Two automobile engineers are expected to arrive in mid-April to investigate why the vehicles caught on fire after the crash, said Sgt. Chad Martin, with the State Patrol in Durango. One of the engineers is with an insurance company, and the other is from Toyota, he said.
Witnesses reported seeing fluids leak from the FJ Cruiser and flow toward the Chevrolet, but it is unknown which vehicle caught fire first, Martin said.
It is not totally uncommon for fires to ignite inside vehicles after a violent impact such as the one last week, he said.
Both vehicles were traveling an estimated 65 mph and hit almost directly head-on, resulting in a 130 mph collision, Martin said.
Hooper was a 20-year veteran of the Farmington Police Department, who served from Aug. 23, 1981, to Aug. 31, 2001.
An arthritic condition in his back was triggered about 15 to 20 years ago during a brawl with a suspect he was trying to arrest, said his ex-wife, Kathy Hooper, in an earlier interview with the Herald.
He began taking prescription pills that pretty much consumed him, she said.
Hooper was arrested near noon Oct. 19, 2010, on U.S. Highway 160, about three miles west of Durango, on suspicion of driving under the influence of prescription drugs.
A preliminary blood test found evidence of the painkiller oxycodone in his system, according to reports filed with the 6th Judicial District Attorneys Office.
A black bag containing 11 medication bottles prescribed to Hooper was found inside the vehicle. At the jail, Hooper was found to be in possession of sleeping pills and an empty bottle of oxycodone, according to arrest records.
Drivers typically lose their drivers licenses soon after being arrested for drunken driving.
But motorists suspected of driving under the influence of drugs typically retain their drivers licenses unless they refuse to submit to blood tests or they have previous offenses for driving under the influence, said William Herringer, a Durango defense lawyer.
Once convicted, drivers convicted of driving under the influence of drugs may lose their license.
The Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles holds administrative proceedings for those suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol, but there is no such hearing for drivers accused of being under the influence of drugs, Herringer said. That is because it is difficult to quantify what would be an impermissible amount of drugs, he said.
Thats a complex pharmaceutical question that varies from person to person, Herringer said. Alcohol has a more universal way that it affects people versus drugs, where tolerance has more of an impact on impairment.
La Plata County Coroner Dr. Carol Huser said she was able to obtain a good blood sample from Hooper that will be tested for drugs or alcohol. Results from the toxicology report should take about three weeks, she said.
During his October 2010 arrest, Hooper was driving a 2004 Ford Explorer the same vehicle he wrecked in February north of Mancos in Montezuma County.
In that accident, Hooper was driving on a snowy and icy road when he slid off the road and smashed into a large pinyon pine tree, according to an accident report.
He was charged with careless driving a charge that causes points to be assessed against his license, but because the previous case was still to be adjudicated, wouldnt cause it to be revoked.
The 2011 Chevrolet he was driving at the time of the fatal accident was a rental.