Charges filed after crash that killed two firefighters

Nine firefighters traveling in a second crew carrier were stopped 30 miles down the highway, restrained with zip ties, and questioned individually.

Michael Allen Johnson
Michael Allen Johnson. Anoka County jail photo.

(Originally published at 7:22 a.m. MDT August 29. Updated at 2:52 p.m August 30, 2016)

The driver of the crew carrier that crashed August 27 near Blaine, Minnesota killing two firefighters has been charged with a crime. Michael Allen Johnson, 28, was arrested the day of the accident and booked into Anoka County jail. He was charged with two counts of criminal vehicular homicide operating a motor vehicle in a grossly negligent manner.

The two deceased firefighters were identified Sunday by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community as James F. Shelifoe, Jr., 23, of Baraga Michigan, and Alan J. Swartz, 25, of Baraga, Michigan.

Monday evening WLUC reported more information about Mr. Johnson based on a copy of the criminal complaint. Here are some of the key points according to their article and an AP report:

  • The crash occurred at approximately 3 p.m. CST on Saturday, August 27.
  • Mr. Johnson said he woke up on Friday, August 26th, at approximately 11:00 a.m. and had not slept since then at the time of the crash, aside from a forty-five minute nap during the early morning hours of August 27th.
  • He said he had used marijuana hours before the crash.
  • He admitted to having used cocaine two days earlier. (Blood tests are pending.)
  • Officers stated that Mr. Johnson appeared impaired and was acting combative at the scene of the accident.
  • He told investigators he fell asleep while driving and woke up to a passenger yelling. He veered off the right side of the road, overcorrected to the left, and struck the cable barrier between the southbound and northbound lanes of the freeway.

In the video above the reporter says:

Two hours after the crash a second Beartown truck carrying nine more firefighters was stopped in Bloomington. Their hands restrained behind their backs they sat along a curb, individually questioned, and left on their way.

Bloomington is about 30 miles from Blaine, Minnesota where the crash occurred.

crash scene firefighters
The crash scene. From the WCCO video.

ABC News reported that a witness saw the truck drive past him at about 80 to 90 mph in a 70 mph zone shortly before the crash, according to the complaint.

The passenger compartment on the crew carrier separated from the truck’s chassis when the vehicle rolled.

Seven firefighters in the crew carrier were injured, including Mr. Johnson. All are expected to recover. The Minnesota State Patrol said in a statement:

The truck was southbound on I-35W near 95th Avenue. The truck left the roadway for an unknown reason, struck the median cable barriers, and rolled. A total of nine people were in the vehicle.

There were 11 other firefighters in two other vehicles traveling in the convoy but the truck that crashed had become separated from the other two. All are part of the Beartown Fire Crew from the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community in the upper Peninsula of Michigan. The firefighters were en route to the Box Canyon Fire in Utah.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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12 thoughts on “Charges filed after crash that killed two firefighters”

  1. This accident opens a whole can of worms, given that the record since 1990 that shows vehicle accidents are one of the leading causes of wildland firefighter deaths.
    First, how wise it to put crew buggies on the road for extended distances? From Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Utah? How about our IHC’s that regularly drive their buggies from Montana and northern Idaho to Arizona and New Mexico, and the reverse when it’s fire season in the Northern Rockies? Used to was that an IHC had to have it’s base within 2 hours of a “jetport” so that they could be flown to an emerging fire quickly, eliminating road miles and Risk.
    Then, was there a specific driver training and qualification program in place for operating these crew carriers? The handling of crew carriers and 11-passenger vans is significantly different that of a Pickup truck.
    And lastly, there will be questions about duty hours, driving time, and always, alcohol or drug use.
    Fatalities are never without strong emotions, but let’s hope that the review of this one increases our body of knowledge about what needs to happen to prevent a recurrence.

    1. That video raises some questions, to say the least. The truck appears to be similar to the Beartown Fire Crew truck that crashed. There were three trucks in the convoy. This is obviously not the one that crashed. Be sure and read the description of the video on YouTube.

  2. From the pictures of the wrecked crew buggy, I noticed the back portion, the crew compartment came off of the chassis and ended up separated in the ditch portion. Does this raise concerns over standards for vehicle construction? I know contractors have to go through strict inspections on vehicles/engines/crew buggies etc. I’ve also seen state agency vehicles that look like someone patched them together. I was on a contract piece of equipment and had just taken it through a very in-depth inspection. I was on a fire in northern Califronia and I asked the operator of one of those state trucks, Do you guys go through an inspection? The operator simply stated, “we’re farmers, we built it and inspected it ourselves”, they were from the east somewhere, seems like a shady situation, inspecting your own work.

  3. We added more information to the article, including that officers stated Mr. Johnson appeared impaired and was acting combative at the scene of the accident. We also added a video that gives more information about the second crew carrier being stopped two hours later and the firefighters being questioned while their hands were restrained behind their backs.

  4. I’m sorry to hear of the loss of life. But far too often the most risky part of the job is going to/from the fire. Speed does kill. Operating a high center of gravity vehicle or one that has untested modifications can significantly alter its stability and handling. The operators physical condition, level of skill and experience and amount of rest are critical. The direct supervisor is also responsible. Years ago a professional emergency vehicle instructor told me that it’s better to arrive a little later and be able to deal with an incident rather than not at all and just become another problem.

  5. So very sad. Just reinforces the fact that DRUGS kill. Unfortunately, two innocent lives were taken because one person decided to get high and get behind the wheel. May those who perished rest in peace and those who were injued heal quickly.

  6. I’ve seen a lot of the crew buggies on GSA Auctions (gsaactions.gov) that have blown engines or broken transmissions along with looking pretty beat up. More so than any other type of vehicle that I’ve seen on the auctions. Are they being overworked, over-driven, mishandled, left in service too long or being underbuilt? Hopefully some investigations can get to the bottom of this.

  7. While I am all for the latest and greatest equipment, lots of investment into having safe equipment, and developing safer equipment, this is not an equipment issue. With all due respect to those bringing equipment concerns into this discussion, the first thing we need to look at is the individual. The actions this individual reportedly took, if found to be true upon further investigation, are THE cause of death. There is no need for investigating and analyzing training programs, supervisory structure, individual qualifications, crew mobilization and transportation systems/processes, etc. as a result of this incident. If anything needs to be investigated, its the conscience of anyone who things they can get behind the wheel after doing drugs and think they’re doing an ok thing.

  8. I was part of a hand crew based in SE Alaska in 2003, and we were sent to fight fires in Idaho and Montana. I was middle-aged and the rest of the crew was in their 20s and 30s. I got a lot of razing because I had difficulty at altitude, but I did my best with what I had going. The crew leader particularly was on my case, but I got decent ratings from my squad boss.
    I worked on timber stand exams the next year back in Minnesota. I heard through a friend that the crew boss that was on my case in Alaska actually passed out cold on a mountain, due to dehydration caused by alcohol abuse. His lower eyes were yellow and he tested positive for liver jaundice. Fortunately for him, his supervisor gave him an option to get treatment instead of firing him.
    Let’s face it, wild land firefighting culture is a drug and booze culture, and participants need to get educated and grow up and stop feeling entitled to do what they want and endangering others.

  9. First of all, to all the haters here – you have no idea the first thing going on with this accident. The driver, hes a good friend of mine amd fellow fire brother as im a wildland firefighter too. Im the one who posted his bail and got him home. Dont judge, its not your right. Second, the media will publish anything they want just to get viewers. Even if they are wrong. Which they were. The driver, the media says admitted to drug use – ok, he doesnt even remember talking to anyone. He was just as injured as others. He doesnt remember anything but waking up in jail. He doesnt believe he woukd say that about drugs, n if he did ot was because the guy was not all there. He just was involved in a fatal accident. What the media doesnt have access to, and even if they did, they never would correct their wrong assumptions- is his blood toxicology results. Negative. Not one single trace of any kind of drug. Nothing. So i take great offense to thise who state Wildland FF do what they want n its a drug n booze world for us. Hardley. I work my ass off and i never have used in my life as far as deugs go. So please watch what you say.
    And finally – kudos to those who have posted here regarding the safety of the vehicle – IT WAS THE FAULT OF A FAULTY VEHICLE that caused the deaths, not the driver. And investigation has shown that, and you know it alls please listen carefully – if you claim to know all the answers, tell me, why have you then not noticed, from the pictures the media posted of the wreckage, that it doesnt fit with what they are telling you happened. What u kniw is what u heard. Do your own math. Look at the picture of the drivers cab. Look carefully now. And now look at the box that came detatched, the passenger carrier. Now, think about what you were told, you followers. Media says the entire carrier, front cab and back box rolled. Well, quoting what they said is, the vehicle (as a whole) rolled, during which, the carrier with the crew, came detatched. Right? Wrong. If you took a moment to review what u saw instead of believing the media, u will clearly see after he over corrected and hit the center median, greatly smashing up the front of the cab, it then skidded or slid, if you will sideways down the road a bit and skidded sideways into the ditch where it came to a stop. During the sideways skidding, the passenger carrier came detatched and rolled many times, past where the truck had come to rest. The cab it self, like the media says it did, DID NOT ROLL , JUST THE BACK THAT CAME DETATCHED. If you look at the pictures of the cab, u can clearly see it sideways in the ditch and that it shows no damage of a roll over. Windows still in tack, the driver door even is shown open perfectly in one picture. The cab didnt roll. The reason the carrier did is because after investigation, it was found that particular bolts that were suppose to also be holding the carrier to the cab were missing. Not because someone didnt tighten them, because the manufacturer of the vehicle failed to install them. Secondly, there was to be a second safety feature on the vehicle to prevent detatchment, which again was found to be not installed. Ever. So there you have it, first hand – u cant argue with first hand facts now can you. Shame to those judgemental folks talking bad aboit something they dont even know about. Geez

  10. Having been involved in wildfire accident investigations, I agree one should wait till the investigation is completed and findings released before coming to a conclusion.

    From the article I would want to see the investigation data on
    – crew work/rest. (i.e. was driver fatigue a factor/ inattention/distractions)
    – vehicle speed at the time of the accident. (reported speeding?)
    – any evidence of mechanical failure that would result in the driver losing control.
    before making any judgement.
    There is more questions I would have. Let us hope the investigation is fair and impartial.

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