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‘I just knew it was going to be bad’: Worker recalls Billerica crash

By Globe Staff 

BILLERICA — The Lynnway Auto Auction announced Thursday it will install safety barriers in its building, a day after a slow-moving SUV abruptly accelerated and drove into a crowd, killing three people and injuring nine others.

Company officials say they hope the posts, called “bollards,” will prevent vehicles from veering from their lane. The company, which holds weekly auctions that draw hundreds of customers, will also boost the number of emergency responders and safety personnel it has on hand.

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“Over the course of 20 years, safety has been a top priority at Lynnway’s auctions,” company president Jim Lamb said in a statement.

The announcement came as authorities continued to investigate the circumstances of the horrific crash, which appears to have been an accident. Around 10:15 Wednesday morning, a 2006 Jeep Grand Cherokee swerved from a procession of cars and sped through the building at a high rate of speed, stopping only after it crashed into a cinderblock wall. The driver, a longtime employee in his 70s, was conscious after the crash and was not taken to the hospital.

On Thursday, officials identified the three people who died — Brenda Lopez, 48, and Pantaleon Santos, 49, both of Rhode Island, and Leezandra Aponte, 36, of Lowell.

A relative of the Lopez family declined to comment. Members of the Santos family could not be reached.

Two crash victims remain in critical condition at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center.

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On Wednesday, relatives identified Aponte, a mother of three who was working her first day at the auction, as one of the victims.

Safety advocates and some car dealers have called for barriers at crowded auctions, citing a similar crash in Framingham two years ago that injured eight people. Throngs of people gather in lanes next to the vehicles, waiting until they are parked so they can inspect them.

Adesa, the company involved in the Framingham crash, was not cited for violations, but later installed barriers in the facility.

MassCOSH, an advocacy group for occupational safety, called for added safety measures, including jersey barriers, in response to the crash.

“Although some may argue this can be difficult to implement, not using this safety precaution has resulted in far too many families losing loved ones to automotive-related injuries on the job,” the organization said in a statement.

HANDOUT

Leezandra Aponte died today in the crash in Billerica.

The group said it would consult with temporary workers who staffed the auction to determine if they received sufficient health and safety training before they started their jobs.

Some car dealers said they have long worried about the safety of auctions. Muzammil Mannan, a Saugus car dealer who was nearly hit during the Framingham incident, said the Billerica crash was a grim reminder of the risks. Car auctions draw larger and larger crowds, and safety measures have not kept pace, he said.

“There’s a lack of safety,” he said, adding that many of the drivers are elderly. “They’re just trying to save money and put money in their pockets.”

In 2014, OSHA cited the company for “serious” violations of workplace safety rules after an inspection found it “failed to require the use of traffic control devices while employees performed maintenance tasks among moving vehicles.”

The company was initially fined $6,300 and agreed to make changes the regulator recommended, and the file was closed, OSHA records show. The fine was later reduced to $2,200.

Lamb, the president of Lynnway Auto Auction, said the company has paid police and firefighter details at every auction.

“The emergency response yesterday was rapid and more effective because there were seven first responders on the scene before the accident,” he said.

On Wednesday, Billerica Fire Department captain Bill Paskiewicz was one of those firefighters. He had been talking with a police officer when he heard a loud bang behind him.

Paskiewicz, who has worked many shifts at the auction during his 24-year career, immediately ran to the scene, where he saw a crushed car through the dust from the cinderblock wall. He spoke to the driver, who was conscious and able to talk.

“I instructed the driver to make sure to shut it off and put it in ‘park,” he said.

Kat Stewart, an employee who had been working at a food cart just 40 yards away, also noticed the Jeep was still running after the crash.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

A car carrier left the Lynnway Auto Auction on Thursday, a day after three people were killed and nine injured.

As a former driver for the company, the sound of the engine had surprised her. She said she had been trained to immediately remove the key from the ignition if anything went awry.

She said she knew the driver, describing him as a longtime, reliable employee.

The company has had near misses before, she said. A driver once had to veer onto a grassy knoll when the car appeared to go out of control. Another person had his foot run over, she said.

On Wednesday, Stewart was at her food cart selling pizzas, egg sandwiches, drinks, and candy, when she heard the crash. She saw the Jeep had veered to the right and struck a line of people before smashing into the wall. A metal bench had moved, either struck by the SUV or toppled over by the fleeing crowd.

Since the crash, employees had been checking in with each other, hoping to find out who was hurt or killed. Shortly before Stewart left early on Wednesday, the company had gathered employees for prayer. A priest had been called, perhaps to read the last rites, she said.

Stewart isn’t a practicing Christian, but went anyway. She needed to hear that things would be okay.


Cristela Guerra of the Globe staff contributed to this report Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com.