By Les Zaitz
HARPER – Leonard Herr was carefully following the Schneider National freight truck west on U.S. 20, traveling no more than 30 mph on the black ice Saturday morning.
Moments before, Herr had passed an accident – a freight truck carrying cases of soda had rolled over.
Herr now followed the Schneider truck into a sharp curve seven miles west of Harper, where the roadway is pinched between the Malheur River and a rock bluff.
Then, Herr caught sight of a freight truck coming from the other direction, traveling what he estimated to be 50 to 60 mph, and completely in the wrong lane. He saw brake lights come on in the truck ahead of him.
“They hit directly head on,” Herr said. “They just exploded. It was a fireball explosion.”
Herr had yanked the wheel on his Jeep, trying to steer toward the shoulder and out of the way.
“My first thought was: I’m dead.”
In a car behind him was Albert Nasby, who too saw the truck in the wrong lane.
“The first thing that comes to mind is ‘Oh, s—,’ “Nasby said. “It was an instantaneous fireball.”
Nasby said the force of the westbound truck pushed the Schneider truck backward, into Herr’s Jeep, which then hit Nasby’s Kia.
The two men got out, checked on each other, and tried to phone for help. They had no cell service.
But no one could help the two drivers as fire consumed the trucks.
“There wasn’t any way either driver got out,” Nasby said.
Oregon State Police identified the driver of the Schneider truck as James Shorten, 55, of Portland. The driver of the eastbound McDonald Wholesale Co. truck that was in the wrong lane was identified as Brian Brunscher, 37, of Springfield. Police said speed and weather conditions were factors.
The wreckage and subsequent investigation closed the major highway for more than 12 hours in the middle of the long New Year’s weekend.
Herr was traveling from his home in Middleton, Idaho, to the California coast for the annual New Year’s gathering with his brother. Nasby, a corrections officer at Snake River Correctional Institution who lives in Fruitland, said he headed to the Oregon coast for a surprise birthday party for his father.
The fatal accident was one of several crashes that snarled roadways in and around Malheur County as temperatures plummeted Saturday morning, leaving highways treacherous with black ice.
Nasby said a driver stopped by the wreck eventually turned around to head back toward Vale to find cell service or help. He said a Vale Fire Department rig arrived first, nearly an hour after the accident.
Herr said people caught on the west side of the accident scrambled up a steep bank, shouting down that they had no cell service either.
Nasby said one truck was carrying a load of whipping cream. Cans exploded as the fire spread, he said.
Brunscher was on a routine freight trip, according to his brother, David. He said Brunscher left Eugene late Friday and was due back home the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. He had worked for McDonald Wholesale, a restaurant supplier, for about two years, the brother said.
He said his brother married his high school sweetheart Rachell 19 years ago and the couple had three children.
“Brian was truly a great guy,” David Brunscher said. “I literally can’t think of a single person who didn’t like him.”
Shorten’s family couldn’t be reached, but his Facebook page showed he worked for Schneider since 1990, was single, and had a daughter and a son.