By Jeff Noble
KNOX COUNTY —
All of the five people who died in the two-car collision Christmas Eve on U. S. 25E in Knox County were from southeastern Kentucky, or had connections to the region.
They included a Whitley County man, as well as a husband and wife from Harlan County, along with their daughter and son-in law from the Tampa Bay area of Florida.
The couple had flown to Lexington earlier in the day to be part of what would have been a Christmas Day celebration with her parents and his in-laws back in Kentucky.
Killed in Monday’s crash in the Flat Lick community were:
—David Vanderpool, 31, of Williamsburg, who was driving one of the cars, a 2004 Ford Taurus.
—Gary Caldwell, 61; his wife, Patricia Caldwell, 58, both of the Putney community in Harlan County; their daughter, Julia Robinson, 29; and her husband, Brent Robinson, both of Bradenton, Fla. All four were in the other car involved in the collision, a 2010 Toyota Camry driven by Gary Caldwell.
The accident happened late Monday afternoon on U.S. 25E in Flat Lick, southeast of Barbourville near the Bell County border, with Kentucky State Police Post 10 in Harlan getting the call at 5:20 p.m. According to State Police troopers who arrived at the scene, preliminary investigations showed Vanderpool’s car driving northbound on 25E, with the Caldwell car traveling southbound, when Vanderpool’s car crossed the median of the divided four-lane highway and hit the Caldwell car head-on.
None of the five people involved survived the collision, which authorities said was “a horrible sight.” State Police said neither Vanderpool, nor both Robinson family members who were passengers in the Caldwell car, were wearing seat belts.
“It was tragic. The State Police said it was one of the worst wrecks they’d ever seen. It sure was,” said Knox County Coroner Mike Blevins.
Blevins added the Knox County Sheriff’s Office had been alerted about a report of a driver being impaired on the road at the time of the accident.
“That’s what I understand. He was coming out of Pineville on 25E and a driver who was behind him alerted 911 dispatch.”
Knox County Sheriff’s Deputy Roy Gambrel was one of the first to respond to the collision scene.
“I got the call about three minutes before the wreck happened. When the dispatcher told me where the wreck was, I just had a feeling it was him. It was the worst-case scenario. In almost 17 years of police work, it was the worst one I’ve ever seen. It don’t get any worse than that,” said Gambrel.
Blevins added toxicology tests would be performed on both drivers of the two cars, which he said was a standard procedure in fatal accidents.
Roger Fannin, an insurance agent in Harlan, knew the Caldwells. He noted the tragedy cut deep into the fabric of what would have been a festive time of year.
“It hurts. I attended church with the couple. It’s absolutely fair to say this community is in shock. It’s very upsetting how this accident took away a family on Christmas Eve,” Fannin said.
He added the Caldwells were returning to Harlan County after picking up their daughter and son-in-law at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, who had flown in earlier Monday. The family was preparing for a Christmas reunion with their children. Both Caldwells were employed as educators, with Gary Caldwell as finance director for Letcher County Schools, and Patricia Caldwell as assistant principal at Harlan County’s James. A. Cawood Elementary School.
“The Caldwells were a blessing to our church. Both Gary and Patricia served in our church in many ways, and their kids grew up in our church. The people here have been broken and in some ways, devastated. We appreciate all the prayers we can get, and that our church and community will grow in hope and strength,” said the Caldwells’ pastor, the Rev. Brandon Pugh of Harlan Baptist Church.
In a phone interview from Good Hope, Ala., where he and his family had spent Christmas Day, Pugh pointed out he and his wife would return to Harlan today (Thursday) to help prepare for the family members’ funerals.
For almost five hours, U.S. 25E was closed to traffic while the collision was reconstructed and investigated. KSP Detective Michael H. Cornett, an accident reconstructionist, is in charge of the investigation. He was assisted at the scene by troopers from the State Police posts in Harlan and London, as well as the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, the Knox County Coroner’s Office, Knox County EMS and other first-responders.