Tuxedo Park police Chief Bill Bortnowsky looks over the broken axle yesterday on the Ford Expedition Officer Jason Conklin was driving when he crashed while giving chase to a speeder.
TUXEDO PARK - Police Chief Bill Bortnowsky believes the answer to why one of his rookie cops died lies in a broken piece of metal. Officer Jason Conklin, 22, died when he was thrown from the open window of the Ford Expedition during a low-speed pursuit of a speeder. He was pinned under the 6,200-pound utility vehicle and suffocated.
The right rear axle of the truck snapped off at the wheel. Police are still trying to piece together exactly when the axle broke. It should have been strong enough to ''hold an elephant,'' the chief said.
Finding out when and why the axle broke are crucial parts in the investigation, Bortnowsky said.
The chief is looking for help. He's asking other police departments to let him know about any problems they've had with the Ford Expedition, a sports utility truck in its first model year that is state certified for police use.
''We are just starting to receive phone calls,'' Bortnowsky said. ''We have to compile the data at this time to determine if it may be of use or pertinent to our investigation.''
Bortnowsky is calling the accident a ''low-speed roll over.'' Police say Conklin's speed was estimated at 30-40 mph.
The wrecked sport utility vehicle was examined by a State Police reconstruction officer, ''who suggested we have the shaft examined by a metalurgist. He felt is was worth looking into,'' Bortnowsky said. Tuxedo Park police are waiting for an independent expert to examine the strength of the axle's metal. Bill DeProspo, lawyer for the Conklin family, said he will also have experts examining the wreckage. It is likely the Conklin family will sue, but it is too early to know who the defendants will be, DeProspo said. Possible defendants include Ford Motor Co. and New York state, DeProspo said, but said nothing will be decided until his investigation is complete.
The accident occurred about 4:30 p.m. Aug. 21 when the 1997 Ford Expedition rolled over a bend on Tuxedo Road, Bortnowsky said.
A Federal Express driver, who was making a delivery in the area of the accident, told police that Conklin's sirens and lights were on and he was apparently pursuing a vehicle when the crash occurred. Conklin was not wearing a seat belt. Police officers, emergency workers, taxi drivers and school bus drivers are not required by state law to wear seat belts. A seat belt would have saved Conklin's life, Bortnowsky said.
The Tuxedo Park Police Department purchased the 1997 Ford Expedition through a state bid for $27,000. This is the first year for the larger sport utility vehicle. The Expedition is in the same class with the Chevrolet Tahoe and the GMC Yukon. The chassis of the Ford Expedition is derived from the F series pickup trucks, said Jim Bright, spokesman for Ford Motor Co. ''Significant changes have been made to it to enhance the ride for utility,'' Bright said. ''Pickup drivers expect one type of ride while utility drivers are looking for something different.''
Ford released the Expedition in August 1996. So far in 1997, Ford has sold 136,727 Expeditions. The number of Expeditions sold in Orange County was not available. As a police vehicle, New York state classifies the Expedition as a mid-size sport utility for use as a K-9 unit. It is not intended for pursuit, said Joanna Rose, deputy press officer for the state Office of General Services.
Bortnowsky bought the vehicle with a police package. There was no indication on the Expedition paperwork that the vehicle wasn't meant for pursuit.
Tuxedo Park bought an Expedition with the best handling and suspension available for that type of Ford vehicle. It does not have the same equipment as a police cruiser. This difference is not explained on the vehicle description provided by the state office that approved them for use.
But, both DeProspo and Bortnowsky believe the key to this accident is the right rear axle.
The chief believes the broken axle contributed to or caused the accident that killed the young officer.
But, it is also possible the axle broke because of the roll over.
Bright, the Ford spokesman, would not comment on the specifics of the Tuxedo Park accident. An investigator for Ford Motor Co. examined the Expedition and is filing a report. That report is not yet available.
In February, Ford Motor Co. announced a recall of about 27,000 Expeditions, said spokeswoman Karen Shaugnessy. The recall was due to the possibility of inadequate suspension weld attachments, she said. ''The rear axle track bar bracket can separate from the frame due to missing welds or inadequate weld penetration,'' according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a group that maintains records of consumer auto complaints. If both welds were to detach, it could cause wheel interference and affect the control of the vehicle, Ford said in its press release about the recall. If only one detaches drivers may experience sway during lane changes, but control would not be affected.
After Conklin's accident, Bortnowsky checked the vehicle identification number of the wrecked Expedition with Ford Motor Co. It was not one of the recalled vehicles. ''Ford Motor Company has expressed extreme interest in participating in our investigation into why the right rear axle sheared,'' Bortnowsky said.
The Town of Ramapo police reconstruction team has completed its analysis of the accident and Bortnowsky said he is reviewing the report. It may be a few more weeks before the police investigation is complete, the chief said. Bortnowsky is determined to get answers: ''I will not let this lie.''