LTFR recaps 5-vehicle rollover collision that sent 10 to the hospital, backing up traffic for thousands of motorists

Shelley Klieforth shared these images.

Updates about RM 620 safety

By LESLEE BASSMAN, Four Points News

On May 16, around 1:45 p.m., a Lake Travis Fire Rescue engine carrying four firefighters left its lane and crossed over the center of RM 620, hitting four vehicles before stopping on the roadside, LTFR Battalion Chief Michael Prather said. LTFR also serves the communities of River Place, Steiner Ranch, Comanche Trail and Marshall Ford as Emergency Services District 6.

The engine was returning to its home, Fire Station 604 at 5939 Comanche Trail, Austin, when the incident occurred, sending 10 out of the 12 persons involved in the accident to area hospitals including Round Rock Medical Center and Baylor Scott & White-Lakeway, he said.

As of Saturday, May 19, all four firefighters were released from the hospital, with three released on the day of the accident and the fourth released just after 10:45 a.m. on May 19, said Braden Frame, vice president of the Lake Travis Fire Fighters Association.

One accident victim was airlifted from the scene by STAR Flight, a helicopter ambulance, to Dell Seton Medical Center, and two victims refused to be transported, Prather said.

The civilians involved in the accident suffered minor injuries and were released or soon to be released, Braden said as of May 17. No additional information has been forthcoming regarding the extent of civilian injuries.

What caused the accident?

According to a news release, Engineer William Tatsch lost consciousness while driving the fire engine and suffered “an extremely rare case of a presumed vasovagal syncope” which caused the accident.

On its website, the Mayo Clinic describes a vasovagal syncope as a fainting spell due to the body overreacting to a triggering event such as the sight of blood or extreme emotional distress, causing the person’s heart rate and blood pressure to suddenly drop.

Tatsch is a 17-year veteran of the department and has been a driver for 13 years, Frame said.

“In that long career, (Tatsch) has never had a medical emergency ever while operating a fire engine,” he said.

LTFR, with its 73 operations department members, conducts an annual wellness program to ensure its firefighters are “all fit for duty,” Frame said. The program includes lab work, electrocardiogram tests and a physical fitness exam, he said

“Engineer Tatsch has passed that test every year including this last year,” Frame said.

Tatsch also suffered a concussion in the incident and he, along with veteran firefighters Rachel Zambrano, Brian Baker and Joel Niemeyer, will remain off duty for a number of shifts, Prather said.

At the time of the accident, Baker and Niemeyer were able to get out of the engine and help injured civilians, call for assistance and tend to Tatsch, Prather said. Zambrano, who was riding on the side of the engine that rolled onto the ground, suffered a concussion and required seven stitches to her forehead.

Drone interference

Prather said drones flying in the area of the accident impeded STAR Flight’s ability to land and extract injured victims.

“There were a couple of drones flown by civilians that were over the scene and that was impeding STAR Flight’s ability to enter that air space,” he said. “When there is a major incident, seconds count. We need to be thoughtful and mindful of the fact that putting those drones in an airspace where we may need (to land) a helicopter is wasting valuable time.”

RM 620 safety

Other local and state agencies, including the Austin Fire Department, Austin Emergency Management Services, Travis County Sheriff’s Office as well as the Texas Department of Transportation and Texas Department of Public Safety responded to the incident. RM 620 was closed until evening hours, with motorists either trekking through Steiner Ranch to avoid the collision or holed up at the Oasis Texas shopping center.

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board approved plans earlier this month to widen RM 620 from Texas 71 to just north of Lakeway’s city limits and add a concrete median to the roadway. However, no such plans are slated for the stretch of RM 620 from Mansfield Dam to Highway 183, including the area in which last week’s accident occurred, a source of conflict for many Four Points residents who travel the road on a daily basis.

According to a May 17 TxDOT document titled “Review of status of RM 620/RM 2222 activities by Austin District TxDOT” obtained from Lani Oglewood, communications director for Travis County Precinct 2 Commissioner Brigid Shea, “even a raised barrier would probably not have prevented” the incident.

“Raised barriers would not have been placed between two traffic signals because of intersection turn lanes and necessary sight lines,” the document states.

The agency, in the document, states it stabilized a traffic signal downed in the area from the accident and has plans to repair the signal’s concrete foundation that was also damaged by the fire engine. TxDOT crews managed to get to the scene to repair the signal via “an escort from Anderson Mill to Comanche Trail” and was able to get the signal up and running around 10:37 p.m., the document states.

“(RM) 620 is a TxDOT road and any improvements made to that road will come as a result of TxDOT,” Travis County Public Information Officer Hector Nieto said. “Commissioner Shea has been an advocate for added improvements to (RM) 620 and many other roads in her precinct. I’m confident that she will continue to do that for the roads in her precinct. Safety is always a concern and is not contingent on an accident happening or not happening. It is the priority of the Commissioners Court to make certain our roads are safe.”

After Memorial Day weekend, TxDOT has scheduled a project to resurface RM 620 from Mansfield Dam to RM 2222 but the timing is dependent on consistently warmer nights, the TxDOT/Shea document reads. The same contractor will then resurface RM 620 from Anderson Mill Road to U.S. Highway 183, it states. A speed study is also planned for RM 620, from Mansfield Dam to RM 2222, a section of the roadway that currently has a 60 m.p.h speed limit, the document states.

The agency’s RM 620/RM 2222 bypass project is in its final design and is scheduled to start construction this fall, it states.

ESD 6/LTFR won’t skip a beat

Although the firefighters involved in the accident will “be out for a couple of shifts” and the LTFR fire engine out of service, Prather said the department won’t miss a beat.

“We already had a reserve engine back in that station by 7:30 a.m. (the morning following the accident),” he said. “Every fire department always has a cache of a couple of engines on standby in case one goes out of service or is in a vehicle collision.”

The missing personnel will be filled in by firefighters who sign up to work over time and through shifts that are overstaffed,” Prather said.

“I am thankful those four (firefighters) are safe,” he said. “What is weighing the most on their minds—and I keep getting phone calls from them about—is they’re worried about the people they hit. That’s what is causing them the most mental anguish right now. They want to know that everybody they hit is going to be okay and be able to go back to their families.”