Relatives wonder if runaway car accident could have been prevented

By Donna McCollum - bio | email

NACOGDOCHES, TX (KTRE) - A Sunday afternoon at the Lake Nacogdoches turned into a tragedy when a driverless car rolled down an embankment and on top of a picnic table where a Nacogdoches family was picnicking.

Tonight a father remains by his wife and son's bedsides. He's asking some serious questions concerning the park's safety. "What if there were some barriers to stop the car. Maybe this wouldn't have happened to my family," Peter Pham wondered.

"Hang in there," whispers Pham into the ear of his 3 year old son, Samuel. The child just had surgery, for the second time. The injuries are so serious he'll receive treatment soon at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston. "The left leg now has a cast, with the fiberglass cast," Pham said pointing to a cast already signed by family members.

In the intensive care unit Pham's wife, Kim, 40, struggles with severe pain. Her groans are audible as Peter enters the room. She too has extensive damage to the legs and internal injuries.  "She had a bone break in half right here and also over here also," said Pham as he pulled back the sheet to show the heavily bandaged limbs.  "And over here her whole foot was like messed up and she was losing a lot of blood." For a while, Kim was on life support and too weak for surgery.

Then there's Pham's three year old niece, Hazel.  Stitches cover one of her big brown eyes. Her parents and two siblings traveled from Houston to spend a fun time in the Piney Woods.

The injuries happened at West Lake Nacogdoches when something went terribly wrong. "The car came from all the way up there," Pham said while pointing up at a hillside just over the picnic area where his family gathered.

The 1994 gray Acura Integra , a compact car, was originally parked about 65 yards away in a parking lot above. According to Nacogdoches Police, the driver left the standard car in neutral without the emergency brake set.  The car left its parking spot and began to roll unnoticed. The car's owner couldn't be contacted.

Pham demonstrated how it may have happened with an old tire. It was released from the top of the hill and quietly, but quickly rolled down the hill and directly across the table where his family had been eating.

Moments before the car came rolling down, all the cousins were around the table. The older ones left the table to watch Pham light a barbeque fire.  "I ran, but it was way too late," Pham said.

Despite the serious injuries, Pham is counting his blessings. "It's an absolute miracle that no one fell on the rebar," Pham said pointing to 3 foot rebar pointing skyward from the crumbled table.

Pham wonders other what if's. What if concrete barriers were installed around the parking lot. Right now there is a hurricane fence and metal highway barriers that abruptly stop just north of where the accident happened. He asks, "What if the designated handicap area was occupied with the disabled. They wouldn't have been able to run away at all.  Could the accident been prevented or could have it been worse?"

City manager Jim Jeffers wasn't aware of the Sunday accident until Tuesday when presented with questions about the accident. "There are some accidents you don't anticipate and we will review what will happen and see if we can do some things that would make that area more safe," Jeffers said.

Sunday's accident happened just two days after a city employee's body was pulled from a water holding area at the wastewater treatment facility. Authorities believe the worker had a mowing accident while mowing near the water that reached a depth of about 9 feet.

Meanwhile, Pham was forced to temporarily close his successful nail salon in order to care for his family. Pham says the family does not have medical insurance.

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