Wrong-way aftermath

Eight months after a head-on car crash caused by a drunken driver coming at them in their lane, a Camas couple face pain and $300,000 in medical costs

By John Branton, Columbian Staff Reporter

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Brian and Lisa Gonsalves were headed west on state Highway 14, in their 2006 Acura sedan, to meet two family members for dinner and have some fun at a hockey game.

“It was kind of like a date night,” said Brian Gonsalves, 34, who lives with his wife in Camas and is part owner of an online sales business.

Some date it would turn out to be.

At 4:35 p.m. Jan. 9, Brian Gonsalves was driving in the left lane approaching Grand Boulevard, in steady traffic, when he noticed a commotion up ahead.

“My wife yelled out, ‘Oh my God, that car’s going the wrong way!’” he said.

Sheila M. Walls, whose blood alcohol level was 0.20, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08, had left a large gathering in downtown Vancouver and somehow blundered into the freeway’s lanes for westbound drivers.

Headed east in a 1991 Honda Accord, Walls first hit a 2008 Volkswagen in a glancing blow as the driver swerved to avoid her — and she kept going.

The driver of a 2005 Jeep also swerved and avoided Walls’ Honda, state troopers said.

In the blur of events, Brian Gonsalves swerved into his right lane, but it didn’t help.

Hurtling out of control, the Honda crashed into the Gonsalveses’ car, head-on to its left front, and sideswiped a 2003 Oldsmobile.

Walls, 29, the wrong-way driver, was killed in the crash. Several people escaped injury, but not the Gonsalveses.

Looking over at his wife, Brian Gonsalves saw her slumped over in her seat belt. He wanted to get out and pull her out of their car, but his right heel was shattered in 20 places, from taking the impact while jammed against the brake pedal, he said.

He climbed out of his car and tried hopping around it to get to his wife, but he fell down.

“I kept yelling to see if she was alive,” he said. “I was just lying on the ground and trying to see if my wife was OK.”

Lisa Gonsalves survived but was critically injured with neck, spine, wrist and abdominal injuries.

Internal injuries and bleeding meant that part of Lisa Gonsalves’ small intestine had to be removed. One of her vertebrae in her mid-back was shattered and one in her neck was cracked. Her collarbone and one wrist were broken, and she was covered in bruises, her husband said.

Eight months later

Eight months after the crash, the Gonsalveses still have surgeons’ metalware in their bodies and suffer chronic pain — she in her right leg — on and off.

Lisa Gonsalves spent 13 days in a hospital, required several months of in-home care and now can walk without a walker or cane, her husband said.

“I still walk with a really bad limp and it hurts like hell every day,” he said. “You wake up and you just kind of dread that first step.”

They are dealing with more than a dozen insurance companies and medical providers — the continuing aftermath of about $300,000 in medical costs. Some costs are covered by insurance, while others they have paid themselves, he said.

And there’s another frustration.

The Gonsalveses know that just before the crash, Walls attended an 800-person memorial service and wake at the Hilton Vancouver Washington and Esther Short Park. It was for philanthropist Wes Lematta, the local founder of Columbia Helicopters, who died on Christmas Eve at age 82. Walls, an Oregon resident, was an employee of the large Oregon company.

The memorial service included food and alcoholic beverages. The Gonsalveses suspect that hotel employees served Walls the drinks that made her intoxicated, and they suspect that Walls would have been visibly intoxicated that afternoon.

If so, Walls shouldn’t have been given more, according to state regulations that prohibit serving drinks to people who stagger, have red eyes, slur their speech and so on.

Officials with the Washington State Liquor Control Board investigated an allegation of possible over-serving of alcohol by Hilton employees in the Walls case. But the agency found no evidence that Hilton employees were at fault, the agency’s spokesman, Brian Smith, said recently.

A copy of the investigation was provided by the liquor control board after The Columbian’s public-records request.

The document says a liquor-board investigator in May asked officials at the Hilton and Columbia Helicopters for lists of employees who worked at the event, or attended it as guests, to interview as witnesses.

The investigation says attorneys representing those companies did not provide those lists, and the liquor board investigator was not able to speak with those employees.

The investigator was ordered on July 22 to close the investigation, due to the companies’ lack of response, and the case was officially closed on Aug. 24, the document says.

“It’s typically pretty difficult to prove an over-service allegation after the fact,” spokesman Smith said.

As it stands currently, the Gonsalveses’ Portland attorney, Michael Wise, said he’s filed no claims or lawsuits against the Hilton. But he said he’s assigned his own investigator to try to find witnesses who may have seen someone serving alcohol to Walls.

“We know she was at the Columbia wake, we know she was at the Hilton, and we obviously know she ended up going the wrong way on Highway 14,” Wise said. “It’s my belief that she came directly from the Hilton. I’m just trying to find out what happened. I’d love to get calls from witnesses.”

But, unless something surfaces later, there’s no known evidence of any over-serving by Hilton employees. And there’s no proof that Walls didn’t drink somewhere else before hitting the road, perhaps at the taverns, restaurants and stores sell alcohol in downtown Vancouver.

Eric Walters, the Hilton Vancouver’s general manager, said he could not comment on the case, and that he was not working there when the Lematta event and the crash occurred.

A corporate spokesman for Hilton Worldwide, based in Phoenix, issued this statement: “The safety and security of our guests and the public is of paramount importance and the Hilton Vancouver is cooperating fully with the local authorities regarding this matter. Due to the ongoing investigation, the hotel is not at liberty to discuss any of the details.”

Changes at C Street?

Another issue that emerged after the wrong-way collision is traffic controls on C Street, where a trucker reported seeing Walls enter Highway 14 by driving the wrong way on the city center ramp. That she entered on C Street was possible but not established for certain, according to the Washington State Patrol.

In January 2009, a year before the crash, C Street was revised from one-way traffic northbound, away from Highway 14, to two-way traffic. Downtown merchants hope the changes to C and other former one-way streets will encourage customers to patronize their businesses.

So now drivers who are headed west on Highway 14 and take the offramp for downtown Vancouver are channeled onto C Street, headed one way north for several hundred feet. But C soon changes into two-way traffic at Seventh Street, just south of the Regal City Center Cinemas. Several readers and others have said that’s confusing.

City engineers investigated C Street after Walls’ crash and found that it meets state and federal standards — and has more than enough signs and markings to warn drivers against entering Highway 14 going the wrong way.

But a similar crash happened again July 16.

A Vancouver police officer was following an allegedly impaired driver who barged onto Highway 14’s westbound offramp at C Street, driving the wrong way.

Several people were injured in a head-on crash that quickly ensued.

Asked in late July about the situation by reporter Bob Albrecht of The Columbian, John Manix, a city transportation engineer, said alcohol, not traffic design features on C Street, was to blame.

“It’s pretty hard to alcohol-proof the roadway,” Manix said.

That’s not in dispute, but still, “The recent wrong-way collisions with under-the-influence drivers do raise eyebrows,” Heidi Sause, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Transportation, said after the July crash.

Vancouver city councilors Jeanne Stewart and Larry Smith agreed in a meeting that the area can be confusing, and said a review and improvements might be in order.

One man who was hurt in the July crash said officials should install metal spikes, like those used in parking areas, to shred the tires of wrong-way drivers before they hit someone.

But traffic teeth would cause maintenance problems and would be unprecedented on such a road, Manix said. The teeth are usually found in parking lots and other slow-speed locations, not on arterial streets.

In an update early this month, Brian Carlson, Vancouver’s public works director, confirmed that city and state transportation officials have been scrutinizing C and Sixth streets at the highway offramp.

“Although the ramp signing and pavement markings do meet state and federal standards, we are considering what additional improvements can be made there,” Carlson said. “Those improvements are likely to include increased signage and additional and refreshed markings on pavement and bump-outs.”

Also, Carlson said, “the city is looking at whether we should change where C Street goes from a one-way to a two-way to a point farther north. Exploring that option will require discussions with downtown businesses, as well.”

Carlson said his officials hope to collect more information, including traffic counts, and make a recommendation to the city manager and city council by the end of this month.

If any changes are made, he said, they’ll be coordinated with state transportation officials.

Lisa Gonsalves has asked officials to consider closing the block of Sixth Street nearest to the Highway 14 offramp, or allow only westbound traffic, away from the offramp.

“The confusion would be gone and it wouldn’t even get drivers close to possibly making a mistake to get on (the offramp) the incorrect way,” she said in her request.

Another idea being discussed is placing a solar-powered flashing red light to direct more attention to the wrong-way warning sign at the offramp onto C Street, said Abbi Russell, a regional spokeswoman for the state transportation department.

Two such signs, with large flashing red lights, now are in place at the offramp from Interstate 205 northbound to Northeast 112th Avenue, near Cascade Park.

“You can only see the flashing light if you’re going the wrong way,” Russell said.

Officials later would gather data to determine whether such flashing signs at high-risk offramps are effective at reducing wrong-way accidents, she said.

John Branton: 360-735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com.