CONNOQUENESSING TWP — Investigators say the quick, unexpected onset of icy roads and a tragically unfortunate roll are to blame for a one-vehicle crash that killed two young brothers Wednesday morning.
Already, state police forensic services and reconstruction experts have determined the accident on Lower Harmony Road was without fault, state police Lt. Eric Hermick said.
Speed was not a factor. The 2004 Dodge Durango was in safe operating condition. The children were properly restrained.
“There was nothing she could do,” Hermick said of Elisabeth McCullough, the 32-year-old driver and mother of both boys. “She was at the mercy of the force of the vehicle already traveling and gravity.”
Investigators said McCullough was returning home from one of her son's appointments with both children in child safety seats.
About 10:22 a.m., McCullough was just eight miles from her 512 Main St. home in Harmony when her SUV hit a sheet of ice, Hermick said.
Traveling west, the Durango slid on the downgrade and left the road. It hit an embankment, causing it to partially roll over and hit a tree. The tree crushed the SUV's roof over the middle row of seats where the two boys' seats were placed.
Hermick said if the tree had hit the roof at any other spot, it is possible no one would have been injured.
Instead it is believed both 3-year-old Liam Bintrim and Declan McCullough, who would have turned 1 on Friday, died of head injuries, Hermick said.
McCullough, who called 911, suffered only minor cuts and refused medical treatment. However, when she realized the severity of her sons' injuries she become inconsolably distraught.
Fiore Moletz, who was splitting wood at his nearby home, was one of the first to reach the scene.
“I saw the kids in the back of the car. They weren't moving,” said Moletz, who only a month ago moved into his house.
Investigators believe the boys died instantly, but bystanders, firefighters and other emergency personnel made extraordinary efforts to free them from the vehicle, Hermick said. But the way the roof was crushed made the job particularly difficult.
Some of those Good Samaritans took positions on one end of the road and the other to stop oncoming traffic, while others slipped and slid their way to the wreckage.
“We tried to pull on the doors, like 15 of us.” Moletz said. “We just couldn't get any of them opened.”
The would-be rescuers' eyes were fixed on the children, motionless.
“We could see they were in their safety seats,” Moletz said. “We were talking to the kids but they weren't saying anything.”
Connoquenessing Township firefighters eventually arrived with emergency tools and lopped off the vehicle's roof and smashed out the back window.
One of the neighbors, or maybe a passer-by, Moletz recalled, rushed in at once.
“He cut his hand on the glass trying to get the kids out,” Moletz said. “He was bleeding.”
About that time, Michael and Tracey Fennell, who live a short way down the road from the crash scene, were returning home from breakfast out when they were stopped near their driveway by firefighters manning traffic control.
Behind the Fennell's van were at least two other vehicles occupied by members of McCullough's family, who McCullough had summoned for help and comfort.
The firefighters allowed the family members access to the scene.
“We heard crying and yelling,” Michael Fennell said. The audible grieving was not just from the victim's family.
“A lot of the emergency workers you could tell were upset,” Tracey Fennell said. “They were crying.”
That's understandable,” Michael Fennell said. “A lot of them have children, too.”
Hermick also recognized the strain the accident put on rescuers.
“We've expressed our gratitude for what they went through ... trying to rescue these children and feeling helpless for not being able to help them,” Hermick said, noting that both the state police and the fire departments involved are employing counselors to help members deal with the circumstances.
“When it deals with children, you cannot prepare yourself,” Hermick said. “No matter how much training you've had, it takes a toll.”
About a dozen firefighters, ambulance personnel and a tow truck driver attended a counseling session set up Wednesday night at the Connoquenessing fire station.
“Some guys are having a pretty rough time dealing with this,” said fire Chief Lou Zimmerman.
He said the counseling team allowed the emergency responders to talk about the incident and let their feelings out.
Linda McCormick, who lives next door to the McCulloughs in Harmony, choked back tears Wednesday afternoon when remembering the two children she used to watch playing outdoors.
She called them the “cutest little buggers you ever saw.”