By JILL COLVIN and JAKE PEARSON
LINDEN, N.J. (AP) — A car carrying three off-duty New Jersey police officers who had just left a strip club drove the wrong way down a New York City highway and crashed head-on into a tractor-trailer early Friday, killing an officer and a civilian and critically injuring two other policemen.
It wasn’t immediately clear why the officers’ car was heading north in the southbound lane of the Staten Island highway. New York Police Department spokeswoman Kim Royster said it appears the men were coming from a party and there’s no indication of alcohol in the car.
However, she said, police are going to review video footage and interview patrons and employees of the Curves strip club. If they find reasonable suspicion that the men were drinking, they’ll get a warrant to test their blood samples for alcohol, Royster said.
The dead were identified as two 28-year-old men, one a Linden police officer and the other a civilian, officials said. Both were passengers in the car. The 27-year-old driver and a 23-year-old passenger, also Linden police officers, were listed in critical condition at hospitals on Staten Island, authorities said. The truck driver suffered injuries that weren’t believed to be life-threatening.
Video taken by a surveillance camera at a gas station shows a car traveling the wrong way on a service road minutes before the wrong-way crash on the adjacent highway. A southbound exit ramp leads from the highway onto the service road.
Gas station attendant Ramzi Abdelhaq told WABC-TV he’s seen cars traveling the wrong direction on the service road before. The time stamp on the video showing the car reads 4:48 a.m. Police received a 911 call of a crash on the highway at 4:51 a.m.
One tractor-trailer swerved out of the way of the car on the West Shore Expressway on Staten Island, but a second didn’t have enough time to veer away before the crash, Royster said. She said the driver of the tractor-trailer passed a blood-alcohol test and does not appear to be at fault.
Royster said the car’s black box will help investigators determine how fast they were traveling.
Images of the crash scene show the truck and car smashed against the center guardrail and the car ravaged.
“Linden is a very small town. Everybody knows everybody,” Linden Mayor Derek Armstead told WCBS radio. “The officers involved are very proactive in our community, and it is just a sad day in Linden, it really is.”
Linden police Capt. James Sarnicki said all three officers were relatively new to the force. The officers’ names weren’t being released until their families could be notified.
He said that Armstead and police Chief James Schulhafer were heading to the two Staten Island hospitals where the surviving officers were taken and that a chaplain and grief counselors are at police headquarters.
In his 37 years working for the department, Sarnicki said, he couldn’t remember any officers being killed in the blue-collar refinery town of 41,000 residents just across the water from Staten Island.
“People are in a somber mood. I could see some officers with tears in their eyes. It is an emotional day for all of us. Like I said, we are a family and we’re all hurt by this,” he said. “It’s tragic for people to lose their lives at such an early age, whatever the reason.”
Flags in front of Linden City Hall, which are part of a war memorial surrounded by smaller American flags, were lowered to half-staff Friday morning.
“This is devastating, devastating,” said Reese Lospinoso, 57, a bartender who grew up in Linden and has lived here most of his life. “The police in Linden are looked at very, very highly. They’re very well-respected in our town.”
Armstead said more information would be released later Friday. A news conference was scheduled for 3 p.m. at City Hall.
Pearson reported from New York. Associated Press writers Kiley Armstrong and Ula Ilnytzky contributed to this story from New York.
PHOTO: Police investigate the crash scene between a truck and a car carrying four people in the Staten Island borough of New York, Friday, March 20, 2015. The car, driving the wrong way and carrying three off-duty officers with the Linden, N.J. police department, crashed into the truck, killing one officer and another person and leaving two other officers critically injured, officials said. The truck driver was treated for injuries that weren’t considered to be life-threatening. (AP Photo/Staten Island Advance, Irving Silverstein)