During chase, Ramsey County Sheriff squad car crashes into building, ignites gas fire


A Ramsey County Sheriff squad car crashed into a building at Willow Lake Boulevard and Labore Road while pursuing another vehicle, igniting a gas fire that burned for two hours. (Mike Munzenrider/Bulletin)

The squad car cracked a segment of the curb as it left the road, on the west side of the intersection of Willow Lake Boulevard and Labore Road. (Mike Munzenrider/Bulletin)

A Ramsey County Sheriff's squad car crashed into a building while pursuing another vehicle in Vadnais Heights the evening of May 29, hitting a gas line and igniting a fire that burned for nearly two hours until Xcel Energy cut off the line, police and witnesses said.

The deputy who was driving the squad car walked away from the crash and was taken to the hospital to be checked out and was released a few hours later, according to Randy Gustafson, the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office public information officer. At the time of the crash, the building was empty and no one was hurt.

The accident occurred around 9:40 p.m. when the deputy, driving eastbound on Willow Lake Boulevard, was passed by a vehicle going the opposite direction. The deputy pulled a U-turn and turned on his lights and siren in an attempt to pull the vehicle over. At that point, Gustafson said, the motorist sped up.

While pursuing the vehicle, the squad car drove up a curb on the western corner of Willow Lake Boulevard and Labore Road, over a hill and through a parking lot, crashing into the space that Land Capital Group, a realty company, rents in the Willow Lake Office Condos.

Mike Haas, the property manager of Willow Lake Office Condos, said the squad car drove directly into the gas line on the outside of the building.

"Six feet left or six feet right, and there wouldn't have been a fire," Haas, who was on the scene the night of the fire, said.

Judging from tracks in the grass on the hill near the intersection and skid marks in the building's parking lot, Haas said he thought the squad car jumped off the hill and estimated it was airborne for some 33 feet.

On the same hill between the road and the building's parking lot, Haas pointed out where Xcel Energy had dug up and cut off the gas line, effectively putting the fire out two hours after it had started.

Haas said firefighters from both Vadnais Heights and Little Canada had cut holes in the building's roof to spray water down on the fire.

Dried out, white roofing insulation was scattered throughout the parking lot the afternoon after the incident.

Haas said the building was relatively unscathed by the blazes, with most of the damage done by the water used to put out the fire. A conference room in the building was hit the hardest, he said.

"Thank God no one was in there, thank God no one was hurt," Haas said.

Gustafson echoed the property manager's sentiments, and said that it was fortunate the crash didn't happen earlier in the day, as there would have been more traffic on the roads and possibly people still in the building.

Thomas Newman, who lives "around the corner" from where the crash took place, stopped by the accident scene to see it in the light of day.

"I was here last night, it was nuts," Newman said, "I'd never seen so many squad cars in one place."

Newman said he and his father, Dennis Newman, have lived in the area for 45 years and had never seen anything like the conflagration in their neighborhood. Newman said he encountered the fiery scene on his way home, and, with it taped off and the roads blocked, parked his car and walked the rest of the way.

"Isn't it a little excessive, though, for a residential area?" Newton said, wondering aloud if the accident happened because of reckless driving on the part of the deputy. "Kids live here."

Gustafson said the accident is under investigation. He said the vehicle which the deputy was pursuing made a "Hollywood getaway," and that police were still looking for it.

The squad car was a total loss in the fire; Gustafson said the type of high-speed pursuit that led to the crash is "fortunately uncommon," and that the incident would be used as "another learning experience."

Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7824. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.

 

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