DOÑA ANA COUNTY – A hospital administrator who stopped to render aid at a crash scene was killed in a chain-reaction pileup Wednesday night on a dimly lit portion of westbound U.S. Highway 70.
Lorenza Nuñez, the patient-centered medical home administrator at MountainView Regional Medical Center, was driving her 2007 Chrysler sport utility vehicle into Las Cruces when she happened upon a 2001 Pontiac Grand Am stopped in the middle of the westbound left lane, it’s front facing oncoming traffic. The Pontiac’s lights weren’t on, creating a dangerous situation for anyone driving US 70 that night.
The Pontiac became disabled for unknown reasons about 8 p.m. near US 70 mile marker 158, between the exits to Brahman Road and Holman/Dunn roads. The speed limit is 65 and lighting is sparse on that portion of the highway.
Nuñez parked her Chrysler in front of the Pontiac and turned on her emergency lights, said Timothy “T.J.” Cohee, who had been following the Pontiac and was a first responder to the initial crash.
Cohee, along with two other bystanders, had already gotten the thee girls inside the Pontiac to safety when Nuñez showed up on scene.
“(She) parked in front of the disabled vehicle to give it more light and more visibility from preventing anyone from crashing into it,” Cohee recalls. “She then exited her vehicle and attempted to flag people off of her vehicle with her cell phone light.”
Cohee said minutes earlier he tried to use his cell phone to do the same and realized it wasn’t helping to slow oncoming traffic.
“I asked her to get back in her vehicle or get on the shoulder with the rest of us and unfortunately, she didn’t,” Cohee said.
Seconds later, a 2012 Jeep crashed into the stopped vehicles, followed by a Nissan Maxima and then a 1991 Dodge Dually pulling a horse trailer.
“The horse trailer went sideways, and she had nowhere to go,” Cohee said.
Authorities said Nuñez died at the scene. She was 51.
“It’s the community’s loss, we are very saddened,” said Ben Woods, a spokesman for MountainView, where Nuñez was employed.
As the PCMH administrator, Nuñez worked closely with patients to help them navigate the sometimes confusing primary care system.
The initial crash
The 16-year-old female driving the Pontiac has been charged with driving while under the influence of an intoxicating drug and careless driving.
Cohee, who was driving a motorcycle, said he was about a half-mile behind the Pontiac when he saw the vehicle in distress. Cohee said he assumed one of the Pontiac’s tires blew because he saw sparks “flying everywhere.”
“From my vantage point they did a 180 and hit the left side of the median on the left lane,” he said. “The vehicle was facing opposing traffic and I almost hit it.”
Cohee, who used to be a military police officer, pulled his motorcycle off to the side of the road and attempted to help. He said an SUV with a couple inside also pulled over.
“The gentleman in the SUV, and I, got out and we were trying to wave off cars with our cell phone lights which was ineffective,” Cohee said. “I almost got hit about four times because we were still getting the girls out of the car.”
Cohee said the female passenger of the SUV assisted the three teenage girls out of the vehicle and got them out of harm’s way.
“At that point I deemed it unsafe to be in that area. I called 911 right away and about two to three minutes after we all cleared, it was just the red Pontiac Grand Am sitting on the road,” Cohee said.
That’s when Nuñez stopped, but not on the side of the road. She stopped directly in front of the Pontiac.
“She was trying her best to help out the best way she knew how. It may have not been the safest way, but she was trying,” Cohee said.
New Mexico State Police, the investigating agency, report “the dark road and no lighting” are believed to have been contributing factors in the crash.
Police said the three girls in the Pontiac, the driver of the Jeep, as well as the driver and three passengers in the Dodge were all uninjured. The driver and passenger in the Nissan and an additional passenger from the Dodge were transported to area hospitals for injuries not believed to be life threatening. The horse in the trailer was uninjured.
Police said seat belts were properly used by everyone except the passenger in the Nissan Maxima.
The incident remains under investigation.
It’s the second fatal crash in the area in a matter of days.
Ronald Vanzant, 24, of White Sands, was killed in a crash that happened about 5:48 p.m. Saturday at US 70 eastbound and the Brahman Road exit.
Vanzant was driving a 2005 Yamaha east on US 70 “at an excessive rate of speed,” police report, when the motorcycle sideswiped a Ford Fusion also headed east. Police said Vanzant lost control of motorcycle and went off the roadway.
Jacqueline Devine can be reached at 575-541-5476, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JackieIsDevine on Twitter.
©2019 the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.)
Visit the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.) at www.lcsun-news.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.