By Ed Runyan
In the months leading up to the Aug. 5 crash that killed Boy Scouts Troop 101 Scoutmaster James Potjunas, 61, of Vienna, Scout leaders had made a number of repairs to the 1999 GMC Suburban Potjunas was driving.
The troop, which owned the vehicle, had replaced the rear axle, front ball joints and the fuel tank, a troop leader told investigators after the crash.
They also replaced the right rear tire about a month earlier because its tread had come loose from the rest of the tire. The tire did not deflate, which apparently prevented the Suburban from having a serious crash.
At 7:15 a.m. Aug. 5, however, while heading north on state Route 11 with five Boy Scouts and Potjunas’ wife, Sandra, 61, on board, the same type of tire failure occurred again in the right rear tire.
The Suburban veered left and into the median. Investigators found the tire deflated.
The Suburban rolled two times and landed on its roof along the edge of the southbound lane. The crash occurred just north of state Route 87 in northern Trumbull County, according to an accident report from the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
The five Boy Scouts and Sandra Potjunas were all rescued from the upside-down Suburban, but James Potjunas was trapped in the vehicle. He died at the scene, apparently from lack of oxygen, the Trumbull County Coroner’s Office ruled. All seven were wearing seat belts. Investigators do not believe the Suburban was exceeding the speed limit.
Sandra Potjunas and the five Scouts, who were from Warren and Cortland and ranged from age 13 to 17, were taken to the hospital with injuries. None was life-threatening, the patrol said.
The group was bound for a camping trip in a park about 21/2 hours north of Toronto, Canada.
The coroner said the cause of Potjunas’ death was “probable positional asphyxia,” meaning Potjunas was in a position that prevented him from breathing adequately.
He also suffered severe head trauma, lacerations and abrasions to his arms and hands, the patrol said. The others had lacerations, bruises and other injuries, the patrol said.
Andrew McCracken, 60, of Warren, the driver of another vehicle in the group, told investigators from the Ohio State Highway Patrol that he heard a “popping” sound and saw pieces of the right rear tire fly in the air.
After the Suburban rolled over in the median, individuals from the Scout troop and other passing motorists rescued the five teens and Sandra Potjunas.
Carmine Delliquadri, 48, of Warren, who was in one of the other vehicles traveling with Potjunas, said the Suburban had been inspected prior to leaving on the trip, and the tires were “good.”
Delliquadri said the vehicle’s rear axle had been replaced in February. And about a month before the trip, the front ball joints and the fuel tank had been replaced.
When the right rear tire failed a month earlier, the spare tire was used on the right rear, and the left rear tire became the spare tire, Delliquadri said.
The highway patrol conducted an accident reconstruction as part of its investigation, which looked into the right rear tire that failed, as well as the other tires on the Suburban.
The two tires in front were General tires inflated to 48 pounds each. The rear tires were Firestones, with the left rear tire inflated to 50 pounds.
The right rear tire was flat on the rim and appeared to be manufactured in 2008, the patrol said. There was no indication that the right rear brakes had overheated or that any other problem with the vehicle contributed to the tire failure, the patrol said.
An investigator found a utility knife on the roadway, but he reported that he did not believe the knife caused the tread to separate from the tire.
The tread on the tire appeared to be in good condition, and the “rubber itself appeared to be like new,” investigator said.
Sgt. Daniel Jesse of the patrol said investigators don’t know why the tread came off the tire.