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Posted on Sat, Nov 3, 2012 : 5:50 p.m.

Police release details of Saturday's fatal crash on I-94

By Paula Gardner

The fatal collision on I-94 on Saturday morning in Ann Arbor occurred during a traffic backup that followed a freeway closure to allow repairs to a highway sign, officials said Saturday afternoon.


Daniel Brenner |

The crash killed Sean Desmarais, 43, of Ann Arbor. Two other drivers - both 18 year old residents of Minnesota - were hospitalized following the 8 a.m. collision in the highway's eastbound lanes just west of South State.

Traffic on eastbound I-94 had been stopped while Michigan Department of Transportation officials replaced a sign near US-23, said Mark Sweeney of MDOT.

"Early this morning the plan was to close the freeway for 15-20 minutes ... but we had some difficulty (with the sign)," said Sweeney, manager of the MDOT service area that includes Washtenaw County.

The freeway closure - which started at about 7 a.m. - ended up lasting just less than an hour, Sweeney said.

"We were ready to open back up ... and the accident happened at that time," he said.

Police said the backup extended to the area of the crash. Among the vehicles stopped there were a semi truck driven by Thomas Smith, 59, of Leslie, Mich. and a Hyundai Santa Fe driving by Nicholas Vandoornevelt, 18.

Officers said the 2003 Dodge Ram truck driven by Desmarais "approached the scene of the stopped traffic," and hit the Santa Fe. That vehicle then was pushed into Smith's semi truck.

Desmarais' airbag did not deploy, police said, and he was not wearing a seatbelt.

Vandoornevelt and his passenger, Spencer Yon, are being treated at University of Michigan hospitals. Smith was treated for minor injuries at the scene.

Desmarais was reportedly on his way to work at Drivers Driveline Auto Repair Service Center in Ypsilanti Township, where he was manager. The business closed Saturday as employees received news of his death. Desmarais is survived by a wife and two children, they said.

MSP continues to investigate the crash, according to a new release.

MDOT is waiting for the results of the investigation, Sweeney said, as they continue to sort out details.

The work on the sign involved erecting a "truss sign" that extended across I-94 near US-23, Sweeney said. The effort was part of other upgrades and replacements of signs in the area that started over the summer.

During a typical 15-20 minute freeway closure, the state police will slow traffic by using two patrol cars driving in tandem and gradually slowing down, Sweeney said.

More extensive signage would only be used for longer closures, Sweeney said, but he said he believes message boards were up on Saturday.

"We don't do a lot of advance signing (for shorter closures)," he said. "This went longer than anticipated."

As the freeway closure extended on Saturday morning, police then closed I-94 to traffic further west at Ann Arbor-Saline Road.

That allowed state police to "funnel" drivers off of the highway, MDOT officials said.

"We had to get people out of that vicinity," Sweeney said. "By the time it had opened, people were leaving the freeway at Ann Arbor-Saline Road."

The sign work, Sweeney said, is not unusual - even though it wasn't anticipated. Officials made the safety judgement based on what they needed to accomplish with the sign, he said.

"It's just not safe to erect a truss (sign) with traffic underneath it," Sweeney said. "... The closure was not intended to go as long as it did."



Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 4:58 p.m.

I was returning home Friday night and the US 23 South Ramp off 94 was closed while signage was being replaced. That ramp was closed early based on the yellow info sign or I would have exited State Street. Having said that we need to be aware of our surroundings while driving and keep and use the safety technology in our vehicles. I always put my flashers on immediately when slowing down especially on an interstate. My heart goes out to the family of this hard working family man who was just trying to get to work.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 4:23 p.m.

As a member of Sean's family I wanted to weight in on this discussion. After reading your comments, first - thank you for the people showing their support. The others? Obviously you have never been in this sort of position because you cannot even fathom the turmoil my family is going through. Yes, he should have been wearing his seat belt, but regardless of if he was or not the airbag did not deploy - he still could have been killed or injured in this accident. I also want to put this out here, especially for the people who are saying he deserves it, it's his own fault, ect. Yesterday was his son's birthday. Do you guys feel like jerks yet? Do you want to continue telling us it was his own fault? Would you like to get in contact with his little boy and explain your point of view? Regardless of who is at fault, keep your negative comments to yourself and learn a little empathy.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 4:43 p.m.

Jessica, you and your family have mine and my wife's sincerest sympathies. Please know we know what the family is going through and will keep you in our thoughts and prayers. May I suggest that you don't continue to read the comments here as the thoughtless unfeeling can't seem to keep their opinions to themselves.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 4:12 p.m.

MDOT screwed up and this time is caused a death.End of Story.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 4:31 p.m.

Well I'm not as harsh as your comment, but I do side a bit with you. MDOT needs to re-prioritize their timing of events. What is the reason not to do this work between 1am - 5am on a weekend? Extra pay for workers (OT)? More "drunks" out at that time of night so they fear for the safety of their workers? I do not blame anyone, but the MDOT management needs to get in touch with reality and take a closer look at their planning. Those who work out on roads for MDOT - they are just doing what they're told to do. Yes it sounds like I'm blaming, but I'm just frustrated with MDOT's decision making body. Time to regroup and come up with a better plan. Two weekends in a row they've caused major traffic snafus due to sign hanging. Really? Sign hanging is a priority? /rant

Paula Gardner

Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 3:11 p.m.

Just weighing in for a moment this morning - given the nature of this crash, with the backups and roadwork, I felt it was important to give as many details of the situation as possible. But I do hope readers will be able to retain compassion for the victims and their families today as comments are made. We're checking on the two teenagers in the hospital this morning for followup (they had to be cut out of their vehicle) and a local family is planning a funeral service one day after their loved one left for work as usual.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 4:07 p.m.

Thanks Paula, this is what I have been trying to say. As someone who lost a daughter in a very tragic manner and had to read unfeeling and thoughtless comments later I can very much feel for the family.

Brittany Bolton

Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 3:06 p.m.

Its a sad loss and all these people judging when they don't know the official ruling and cause of the accident should stop. It could have been a medical issue for all you know and hopefully all you people who blame him and say awful things feel like jerks. You all need to realize this person has a family and can read this. How would you all feel if it was your relative and people said horrible things about your relative? Quit playing the blame game and grow up! My prayers go out to all the families and people involved. If you didn't witness it or weren't in one of the vehicles you shouldn't judge. Sean was a good family man and would never intentionally hurt anyone ever. He would be devastated about the two young adults in critical condition.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 2:44 p.m.

Gosh i feel so bad I was gunna go yell at him today to fix my exsaust because there was some leaks where they did it before n I find out he passed last night. I pray for the family and we are actually really close to him. My mom's fiance was best buds with him. I live down the road to his shop


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 11:54 a.m.

Prayers to the family. God Bless you all.

Real Life

Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 4:22 a.m.

The core reason for this death (and a few more I've seen over the years) is that Ann Arbor has prevented a three lane freeway between US-23 and the M-14 connection. Traffic often has to come to an abrupt stop at State Street, and on occasion, people slam into the stopped traffic. Decades ago, Ann Arbor made the decision to put development right up to the then existing narrow I-94, and didn't account for growth.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 3:15 p.m.

Whether it was a 2 lane road, a 3 lane road, or a 10 lane road, if traffic is stopped BY POLICE SO A SIGN CAN BE PUT UP, a driver that doesn't stop still hits the vehicles in front of them. Whether the 2 lane road causes backups AT OTHER TIMES is not relevant, is it?


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 3 p.m.

Ann Arbor has no ability to make that decision. IF the state or federal government wanted to expand the highway they could take that land by eminant domain and widen the freeway. As somebody who drives the freeway system in the state of Michigan, this is not that bad of a secion highway when it comes to traffic. There is no reason to expand it to 3 lanes. each way.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 2:12 p.m.

Choices drivers make is the core reason for the vast majority of deaths on our highways. Occasionally there's a vehicle mechanical failure or an acute medical condition (e.g., heart attack) that's the cause. But those cases are rare. It's choices in general and it's choices that don't take into account the current conditions -- curves, sun, haze, ice, etc. As a driver you're responsible for your own life and the lives of those around you. The moms and dads, the sisters and brothers, the kids and babies in nearby vehicles and near the roads. You're responsible. Period.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 7:34 a.m.

"... Traffic often has to come to an abrupt stop at State Street..." At 8am on a Saturday morning?


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 2:16 a.m.

I was on my way to work at about 7:50 on 94 east just before the state street exit when I saw brake lights up ahead, having just seen a sign saying that a lane was closed ahead I quickly exited onto state street. There was one small lighted sign informing of the lane closure ahead. At that time of day, on a saturday morning with light traffic, most people including myself are driving to fast. I drive that route everyday, and if the traffic is slowed on the curve just before the state street exit, you can get into trouble quickly. I fell bad for the family who lost there father in this accident. Those new million dollar electronic signs should have warned driver's of the closure ahead!!!! They always tell us to watch for football traffic ahead.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 11:39 a.m.

"At that time of day, on a saturday morning with light traffic, most people including myself are driving to fast. I drive that route everyday,"... PLEASE SLOW DOWN.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 2:02 a.m.

That's right, let's make the family of the driver who was killed feel even worse by putting all the blame on him. If he did make a mistake he and his family paid a very dear price. My thoughts and prayers are with the family.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 4:42 p.m.

@a2citizen why allow comments at all?


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 2:27 p.m.

They probably shouldn't allow comments, except for condolences. Nothing of value is added.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 1 p.m.

a2citizen, and so that supposed to make the family feel better in either case? I'm not talking about the police or FAA. In this case I'm talking about the unfeeling commenters here.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 11:47 a.m.

Thank you for this. While Sean and I were not close, I have known him since Kindergarten at Houghton School in Saline. He was a good man. He will be missed!


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 7:32 a.m.

"...putting all the blame on him..." The FAA does it to pilots all the time. If the driver was at fault, then the driver was at fault.

Laura Jones

Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 1:46 a.m.

So sorry for the people injured and for the family of the man who died. What a horrible day for them all.

Josh Zincke

Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 1:46 a.m.

I drove home last night around 11:30 and 94 East was starting to slow down because of a crane being up.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 1:12 a.m.

The reason why the road was shut down or there was a backup is besides the point here. The cause of the crash was driver error from the sounds of it. The road could have been at a standstill for any number of reasons especially in that stretch of 94. It's not at al uncommon.

Laura Jones

Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 1:45 a.m.

It's almost always driver error. Safety measures are taken to counteract common driver error.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 12:47 a.m.

This kind of freeway closure -- if really necessary -- should be done at 2 or 3AM *not* 7AM. And there's no excuse for not placing sign in advance that would give drivers plenty of warning of stopped traffic ahead.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 3:39 p.m.

Good idea that way the drunks can crash into the workers. There are 3 very big message boards along that stretch of I94 that warn drivers of road issues, one at Pierce Rd, one at Baker Rd. and one at Scio Church Rd. and they do use them for road closures and such not just travel times.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 2:30 p.m.

You think it is safer for the workers to do the work in the dark, and for drivers to negotiate closures in the dark? Drivers should be aware of their surroundings, at all times of day/night.

James Endress

Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 12:44 a.m.

So, why didn't they start the work around 5am or something. That way if they ran over a bit, it would still be before most traffic would be active.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 12:14 a.m.

So closing the road on a home game Saturday may not have been too wise? Come on MDOT, use your heads.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 3:35 p.m.

Comments like this just shows us that most on here have no idea what they are talking about when they post. A home game, really?


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 2:49 p.m.

So when is the "best" time to close a freeway? The fact is, as a driver it is your DUTY to pay attention to what is in front of you. From this story it seems as if Mr Desmarais was not able to stop his vehicle in the amount of time needed. The work needed to be done, and it was being done. Whether they choose 7 am on a Monday or Saturday, drivers need to pay attention to what is in front of them

Matt Cooper

Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 2:43 p.m.

say it plain: "...but it Still isn't too wise to close that road at that hour (sunrise to boot) without far more attention to safe set-up." 1. 7 am on a Saturday morning isn't a good time for a relatively short road closure? Could you suggest a better time? I'm sure you have far more experience and knowledge than the good folks at MDOT when it comes to planning these sorts of things, right? 2. Were you there to personally observe the safety measures taken? Are you familiar with the laws and safety standards in place for road closures such as this? If not, why do you seem to assume that proper attention wasn't paid to safety measures? It's easy to play Monday morning quarterback when you're not the guy out there doing the job.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 12:52 a.m.

I stand corrected. The Michigan game was away. Sorry for the error. The timing of the closing of any major road for repair / replacement of a sign can still be debated.

say it plain

Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 12:46 a.m.

It was an away game for sure, but it Still isn't too wise to close that road at that hour (sunrise to boot) without far more attention to safe set-up. Look at the stretch of road where this happened, tricky to deal with a sudden dead-stop in traffic! I'm so sorry to hear about the death and I hope the injured heal and I hope MDOT learns from its tragic mistakes here... And I hope MDOT and all road-work authorities around here start acting with more concern for motorists.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 12:22 a.m.

I thought today's game was an away game at Minnesota?


Sat, Nov 3, 2012 : 11:36 p.m.

I swear it was closed around 11pm last night too. Driving to work going west I saw tgat the east side was a parking lot. Going home cars were backed up on the on ramp at state. Really blows my mind. I'm so sorry to hear about the accident. I hope they look into why the airbag was not deployed. Won't change the outcome but might help if there is a defect.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 11:36 a.m.

Billy's info is incorrect. Airbags deploy whether you have your seat belt on or not. They are more likely to cause injury if the seat belt is not fastened.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 4:35 a.m.

Billy - I had no idea about that. Thanks for teaching me something new.


Sun, Nov 4, 2012 : 12:02 a.m.

I think the airbag didn't deploy because he didn't have the seatbelt fastened. That's a standard safety feature I'm pretty sure. The airbag can do more harm than help if you're not wearing your seatbelt.