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Crash probe leaves mystery: June crash on Duluth bridge killed wrong-way driver, injured others

Dennis Edlund's Hyundai Sonata after it struck a pickup truck and then an SUV while driving the wrong way on the Bong Bridge on June 2. Investigators could not determine what might have caused Edlund to drive 4.2 miles the wrong way. (Minnesota State Patrol photo)1 / 3
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The scene of a fatal three-car accident in the Duluth bound lanes of the Bong Bridge on June 2. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)3 / 3

DULUTH — Video shows Dennis Edlund driving his car out of the parking lot at Gateway Towers in downtown Duluth and onto Michigan Street at 5:13 p.m. on June 2.

Edlund, a railroad buff, had been visiting the train museum at the Depot, and apparently took a ride on an excursion train. He was on his way home to Centerville, Minnesota, in the northern Twin Cities suburbs.

But as Edlund pulled out of the parking lot, he made what would be a fatal mistake. He turned the wrong way, right, onto the one-way road and into the face of oncoming Michigan Street traffic exiting off Interstate 35 into downtown.

No one knows why he turned the wrong way. And it now appears no one ever will.

Details of the crash investigation from the final Minnesota State Patrol Crash Reconstruction Report obtained by the News Tribune give no clues as to why Edlund went the wrong way and kept going for miles, at speeds well over 55 mph, either not realizing or not correcting his mistake.

Roads were clear and dry, the weather was sunny, temperatures were in the 70s. Edlund was reportedly in good health.

'Going to get killed'

Reports of a wrong-way driver on the freeway began flooding 911 within two minutes, by 5:15.

Edlund, two days short of his 78th birthday, kept driving south on northbound I-35, directly against oncoming traffic. The maroon 2009 Hyundai Sonata four-door sedan drove past the ramp off the Blatnik Bridge from Superior, past the 21st Avenue West/Highway 53 interchange, and under 27th Avenue West. That's where Edlund caused a three-vehicle crash as oncoming traffic scrambled to avoid hitting him. A Kia OSX with three occupants, a Land Rover Discovery with two occupants and a Dodge Avenger with four occupants crashed into each other as Edlund sped by. Two people in the Avenger suffered minor injuries.

Sara Peterson said she was driving north near the 27th Avenue West exit when she saw Edlund's car coming toward her on the freeway's shoulder. She slammed on her brakes as much as she could and moved over enough to let the vehicle pass without a collision.

"It was unreal. You just don't expect to see that. Just very, very scary," she said the night of the crash, estimating that the wrong-way car was going 60 to 65 mph.

Edlund inexplicably kept going south in the northbound lane of I-35, then headed off the freeway, up the exit ramp from U.S. Highway 2, then onto the Bong Bridge toward Superior, still going the wrong way at speeds estimated by the State Patrol at well over 55 mph.

George Kane said he thought he and his wife were going to die on the Duluth side of the bridge. He was stuck between the bridge's side rail on the right and a utility truck in the left with seemingly no way to avoid a head-on collision with the Sonata.

"All of a sudden, out of nowhere, we look up, and there's a car just barreling right at us. I mean, he was flying," Kane told the News Tribune the night of the crash. "I just hit the brakes as hard as I could and it was so close, I just knew we were going to get hit. I said to my wife afterwards, I didn't think for a second that we weren't going to get killed. I was just wondering how hard the impact was going to be."

Somehow, the truck alongside him moved far enough over to allow Edlund to swerve around Kane's vehicle, completely avoiding a collision.

But near the center span of the Bong Bridge, the wrong-way trip ended with Edlund's car smashing into a Dodge pickup truck driven by Lawrence Helmbrecht-LaPointe of Duluth, then careening another 350 feet before striking a Toyota RAV-4 SUV driven by Collin Peterson of Superior.

Minnesota State Patrol accident investigators said they believe Edlund was thrown into his car's windshield, and then into the passenger seat, upon impact with the pickup. Momentum then carried the car farther south and into the oncoming Toyota.

The crash was reported to 911 at 5:24 p.m. Edlund's head had hit the windshield so hard that it shattered the glass, the accident report noted. He wasn't wearing a seat belt. Firefighters attempted resuscitation but stopped when there was no response. Edlund was declared dead at the scene at 5:33.

Edlund had driven the wrong way for 4.2 miles, at the heaviest traffic period of a busy summer Friday afternoon, with oncoming drivers honking and scrambling to avoid hitting him much of the way.

Two people in the RAV-4 suffered minor injuries. Both oncoming drivers were cleared of any wrongdoing in the crash, with troopers saying they could have done nothing more to avoid Edlund's wrong-way vehicle.

Never know why

The Minnesota State Patrol accident experts conducted an extensive investigation, looking carefully of the speed and angle of the collisions, skid marks and the damage caused and examining dozens of photos of the wrecks. They also looked at reams of data from onboard computers in the vehicles involved and conducted interviews with people involved and eyewitnesses.

But in his final report, lead investigator State Patrol Sgt. Aaron Churness concluded simply that "this crash happened due to the fact that Dennis Edlund was driving the wrong way and speeding on" U.S. Highway 2.

An autopsy report from Midwest Medical Examiners in Ramsey, Minnesota, obtained by the News Tribune, found Edlund "died as a result of multiple blunt force injuries" sustained in a multiple vehicle accident.

While other details of the autopsy are not made public, the medical examiner apparently found nothing that would help explain why Edlund made such a fateful mistake. The State Patrol said there was no evidence of alcohol, drugs or a medical emergency such as a heart attack or stroke, no sign of a tumor

In the end, accident and medical experts couldn't answer the critical question: Why?

"The crash reconstruction's role is to determine how a crash happened. We can sometimes determine why a driver made a decision, but not always," Lt. Tiffani Nielson, a State Patrol supervisor, told the News Tribune. "In this case, the wrong-way driver was deceased. There was no medical or toxicology reason to help explain why he was driving the wrong way. We will not make an opinion as to the why this occurred without something to support it."

Diane Jensen, Edlund's sister, said he showed no signs of confusion or dementia and had been a very good driver, including a stint as a professional driver for a courier company. Edlund had diabetes, but had no other ailments to speak of, she said.

"We are just as confused about this as you are. To this day, we don't know what happened," Jensen, of Prior Lake, Minnesota, told the News Tribune. "Thanks God no one else was killed."

Jensen said Edlund had spoken to one of his stepdaughters on his cellphone just hours before the crash.

"He said he had a great ride on the train. He was in good spirits. He sounded fine," she said. "There wasn't anything wrong."

Train buff

Dennis Edlund may have been parked in the Gateway Towers to avoid paying for parking at meters near the Depot.

Jensen said Edlund was a lifelong railroad buff. And he was a longstanding member of the Lake Superior Transportation Club, which was the founding organization of the train museum.

"He was a member in good standing and had been for a long time," said Ken Buehler, executive director of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum. "No one recalls seeing him that day, but he probably was here. That would make sense."

Edlund was retired from SuperValu. His wife, Sharon, died in 2013. He is survived by two daughters, three grandchildren, a sister and a brother.

Edlund's memorial service was held June 13 at the Cremation Society of Minnesota in Edina.

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