TOWNSHIP 2 RANGE 9, Maine — Investigators likely will never know exactly what caused a Mattawamkeag truck driver to suddenly swerve before his tractor-trailer carrying a load of wood chips fell onto its side and slammed into a guardrail last month, state police said Tuesday.
A driver for W.T. Gardner & Sons Inc. of Lincoln, Donald Pepin, 50, of Mattawamkeag was killed almost instantly in the Aug. 30 accident, which occurred on Interstate 95 in the southbound lane a few hundred yards south of mile marker 241 in northern Penobscot County. Several tons of wood chips spilled down a sloped area of the median as the truck chewed up about 50 yards of guardrail before it halted.
No one else was inside the truck or hurt in the accident.
Interviews with six witnesses to the accident or its immediate aftermath gave generally consistent accounts, but they and a reconstruction of the accident never really pinpointed a cause, state police Trooper Larry Anderson said.
“For whatever reason, it looked like he [Pepin] decided at the last second to change lanes to avoid a collision. Maybe he didn’t see the vehicle in front of him and he changed lanes abruptly because of that,” Anderson said. “There is really no way to make the determination.”
Family members reached Tuesday said they were saddened but not surprised that the accident’s cause likely would remain unknown. Pepin’s death is the second tragedy the family has endured this year, they said.
His brother Gary Pepin died suddenly in January after having been diagnosed earlier with throat cancer, said Jennifer Bradbury, a South Portland resident and youngest sister to the two men.
“He was an experienced driver. Nothing makes sense right now,” Bradbury said of Donald Pepin. “There’s miles and miles of nothing there and that one piece of guardrail, and that’s what he hit. It’s surreal.”
Anderson said that five of the six witnesses, all motorists on the road at the time, had almost identical accounts of what happened, saying that Pepin turned the truck abruptly from the right to the left lane as it passed a slower-moving vehicle.
The witnesses also agreed that the truck wobbled and its trailer already had begun to outpace the tractor in front of it when its left tires hit the rumble strip and the entire vehicle fell onto its left side, Anderson said.
But the sixth witness said, “It looked like somebody may have cut him off,” an account lacking any supporting evidence, Anderson said.
Pepin may have been swerving to avoid the vehicle in front of him because it was moving more slowly than his. Even so, the driver of that vehicle would not have been at fault, Anderson said, as there is no indication of any sudden stop or that the driver was moving so slowly as to constitute a hazard.
The stretch of I-95 where the accident occurred is straight, and visibility there is good for at least a mile.
“He clearly passed her while he was losing control. Something caused him at the last second to pass her. Whether it was her driving or something else, I don’t know,” Anderson said.
Anderson and members of the state police truck weights unit examined the truck and found no imbalance in the load or mechanical failure that might have caused the accident.
“Two witnesses said they thought the load shifted in the truck, but the folks at Gardner said that wood chips can’t shift. They’re not like pallets,” Anderson said.
Pepin’s father, Richard Pepin, said he had no trouble believing that. Other truck drivers whom Donald Pepin knew swore that wood chips typically are packed too tightly in trailers to cause a weight shift, he said.
The truck and trailer were demolished.
Anderson awaits only the medical examiner’s report of Pepin’s autopsy to conclude his investigation, he said.
Family members doubted the report would reveal a health problem. Pepin, they said, was a very good, experienced driver who loved his family, had a buoyant, mirthful personality and who kept himself in pretty good shape.
Bradbury said that after passing his physical earlier this year, Pepin joked that his good health meant that “he could continue his affair with Little Debbie,” a reference to the snack cake maker.
Workers at the Mattawamkeag Town Office always knew Pepin was there because he would shout, “Anybody awake?” as soon as he came through the door.
Pepin was so highly regarded by his fellow workers that 47 tractor-trailer trucks, many from Gardner’s, accompanied his procession from Clay’s Funeral Home in Lincoln to the Mattawamkeag cemetery, Bradbury said.
The truckers made a special trip around his and his parents’ Mattawamkeag homes and blew their horns in tribute to him as they passed.
“It was the most incredible experience anyone could have been to. We were told that there were around 500 people at the service,” Bradbury said. “My brother was one in a million.”
Pepin is survived by his wife of 24, years, Cassie, a son, Brandon, 24, and a daughter, Kimberly, 19, Mrs. Pepin said.
His fellow truckers also wanted to take care of Pepin’s family the way Pepin did, Richard Pepin said. A few Sundays after his funeral, about 25 of them, and their families, came to the Pepin house and cut up at least eight cords of firewood to help the Pepins get through the winter.
Then Cassie Pepin served them a spaghetti dinner.
“If he could get you going, he would. Everywhere he went, he brought laughter. We miss him terribly,” said Richard Pepin. “I am just thankful for the good times we had together. We were quite close.”