Former Steeler Dies in Crash
HERKIMER, N.Y. (AP) -- A former player for the Pittsburgh Steelers led state troopers on a 40-mile chase along the New York State Thruway during morning rush hour Thursday before dying in a fiery head-on collision with a tanker truck carrying corrosive acid.
State police identified the victim as Justin Strzelczyk, 36, an offensive lineman with the Steelers for nearly a decade until the team released him in February 2000.
Troopers said Strzelczyk crashed his pickup truck into the westbound tanker just moments after swerving around a tractor-trailer that had pulled across the highway to block its path in the eastbound lanes.
Strzelczyk drove 15 miles on three tires and a rim after one of his pickup's tires was punctured by metal spikes thrown into the road by troopers.
"It could have been so much worse. We're fortunate that only one person died," said Trooper Jim Simpson, a state police spokesman.
"It looked like an airplane crash. There was quite a lot of diesel fuel spilled that was burning. The pickup was almost unrecognizable," he said.
Strzelczyk, who lives near Pittsburgh in McCandless, Pa., had been involved in another minor accident about an hour earlier just west of Syracuse, which started the bizarre turn of events, Simpson said.
The hit-and-run occurred about 7:20 a.m. and state police put out an alert for Strzelczyk's pickup. Troopers spotted him about 40 minutes later still heading east on the Thruway just west of Canastota, midway between Syracuse and Utica.
A second unit tried to stop the pickup by booby-trapping the road with the "stop sticks," but Strzelczyk just kept on going, Simpson said. The pickup was clocked at 88 mph, Simpson said.
"He was going down the road, flipping off the troopers. He even threw a beer bottle at them," Simpson said.
A "good Samaritan" trucker, who police were unable to identify, saw the chase and pulled his rig across the road. Instead of stopping, the pickup drove across the grass median into the westbound lanes and traveled about three miles in the wrong direction before the deadly crash.
Commenting on the trucker's actions, State Police Capt. Donald Faughnan said, "it's always a judgment call. Sometimes the actions work out, sometimes they don't. We prefer civilians not get involved unless we ask them to. But maybe (the trucker) helped prevent something worse."
The collision with the tanker occurred near Herkimer at about 8:15 a.m. while the highway was busy with morning commuters and travelers. The driver of the tanker suffered only minor injuries. No one else was hurt.
Troopers said Strzelczyk was traveling at nearly 90 mph when the collision occurred. He was ejected from the pickup truck and both vehicles burst into flames.
The driver of the tanker was identified as Harold Jackson, 60, from Bowman, S.C., police said. Though he was not hurt he was taken to a hospital for observation because he recently had heart surgery.
Troopers said they were unsure why Strzelczyk was in upstate New York and why he fled. They added that toxicology tests will be conducted.
The crash caused Thruway officials to close a 13-mile stretch of the highway. The eastbound lanes re-opened after five hours. The westbound lanes were not expected to reopen until later Thursday because of the significant cleanup required to make the road passable, Simpson said.
Simpson said it also was fortunate that the tanker did not spill any of its hazardous cargo.
As a precaution, residents in Herkimer, Ilion and Mohawk were advised to stay indoors until the heavy smoke caused by the fire dissipated.
The 6-foot-3, 309-pound Strzelczyk, who grew up in West Seneca, N.Y. a suburb of Buffalo, was an 11th-round pick in the 1990 NFL draft out of the University of Maine. He spent nine years with the Steelers and played in the 1995 Super Bowl.
Strzelczyk was one of the team's most durable players before a knee injury against Kansas City in October 1998 required season-ending surgery. He reinjured the knee preparing for training camp the next season and needed another operation that kept him on injured reserve for the entire 1999 season.
In his first eight seasons with Steelers, Strzelczyk missed just two games, both in 1997. Over his nine-season career with Pittsburgh, he played in 137 games and started in 75.
Nine months after his release by the Steelers, Strzelczyk was arraigned for illegal possession of a gun. Police said he slammed a loaded handgun onto a bar in Pittsburgh when discussing the presidential election with a friend.