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TDOT sent salt trucks after fatal crash despite repeated calls before

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HAMILTON COUNTY, TN (WRCB) -

It took 11 hours after repeated calls and the report of a fatal crash before a state salt truck arrived to treat icy roads on a portion of Hixson Pike on a cold March morning. 

A recording indicates that dispatchers initially phoned Tennessee Department of Transportation at about 9 p.m. March 5.

At least two more calls were placed and hours later, trucks arrived out on a portion of Hixson Pike that weaves and curves along the hillside near Lakesite.

It was too late for 64-year-old Joe Dempsey who was on his way to work at Tennessee Valley Authority. He was killed instantly after he “lost control on a large patch of ice that was on the roadway,” according to a Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office traffic crash report.

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Records indicate the road was never treated the evening of March 5. County records show a salt truck arriving on scene about half an hour after Dempsey was killed.

Jennifer Flynn, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Transportation Region 2 office, said the Chattanooga office never received phone calls requesting a truck until after the fatal crash.

“We weren’t derelict in our duty. We were doing the best we could. We had not gotten a call. We don’t have record of any call anytime during the evening before or anything,” she said. “If there was a communications breakdown, which we don’t know what it was, but we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

A Hamilton County dispatcher phoned the state at 2:51 a.m. March 6 in Knoxville asking for Hixson Pike to be treated.

“The 9200 block of Hixson Pike -- it needs sand and salt,” a county dispatcher told a state dispatcher.

She told him that someone phoned six hours earlier asking for the same portion of road to be treated.

The state dispatcher asked how to spell Hixson. He asked if Hixson Pike is located in Chattanooga.

The 24-hour transportation management center in Knoxville handles calls after hours because the center in Chattanooga closes each evening.

The state dispatcher did not say if anyone ever responded the first time a call was placed.

The county dispatcher continued, “They say it’s pretty bad and rush hour is coming up. Either they went out and did something or didn’t and it’s bad again.”

Hamilton County records show a truck didn’t arrive until about 7:45 a.m. when deputies were already on scene investigating what led up to Dempsey careening across double yellow lines and striking another vehicle.

Dempsey, who was behind the wheel of a Mazda Miata, was heading north on Hixson Pike just after 7:15 a.m. when he struck the icy patch, according to a crash report.

He crossed the double yellow lines striking a Honda Accord with a mother behind the wheel and 3-year-old inside. The Miata spun out. The Accord went off the roadway and struck several small trees. The mother and child had to be taken by ambulance to Erlanger, according to reports.

Flynn said a state supervisor in Hamilton County that morning recalled the road getting treated. He remembers dispatching, “a salt truck to spot salt the icy patch on Hixson Pike as soon as we received the report of it Friday morning, March 6.”

Two days prior to the crash temperatures warmed up to 70 degrees before dipping back down again. Crews had been called out to treat roads for the past three weeks.

The state department of transportation monitors the forecasts each day to determine how many trucks to send out. Two trucks were on standby to cover 914 miles of state roads in Hamilton County on the morning of March 6 in case there were reports of ice.

Flynn said roads that have the most traffic such as state roads and the interstate system are often the top priority for state crews.

The night before the crash, Flynn said Interstate 24, State Route 111, Scenic Highway, Old Wauhatchie Pike and State Route 8 were treated.

She said a call requesting salt on Hixson Pike was never received.

“We weren’t expecting bad weather but it was supposed to be cold overnight so that’s why we had the crews on standby,” she said. “They were there to respond to any reports of icy patches and then they would be there to go out and deal with them.”

It’s still unclear why TDOT never responded sooner.

“There had been a crash. Someone lost their life and I hate that it happened. I do. Our men and women do the best that they can. Safety is the number one goal,” Flynn said.

In an email following up after an interview, she said, “I apologize that I cannot provide more information about this situation.”

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