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10 Die in 2 Separate Pa. Accidents

January 5, 1998

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ A father sat alone in a motel room mourning the death of his only son, hundreds of miles away. A woman remembered her sister in the eerie silence of her stunned hometown.

And two Pennsylvania towns 45 miles apart spent the weekend coping with 10 deaths in a pair of strikingly similar auto accidents.

In each case, a car loaded with people. A missed turn. A plunge into frigid water. Five lives snuffed out.

``What a waste,″ Allentown Mayor Bill Heydt sighed.

Early Saturday morning in Allentown, five friends _ four teen-agers and a 20-year-old _ sped down a road along the Lehigh Canal. The driver apparently missed the turn onto a narrow bridge, and the car rammed into a guardrail before flipping into the 33-degree water.

Police said the passengers in the back seat kicked out a tiny rear window in a frantic effort to escape. A passerby spotted the tires poking out of the water later that morning.

Divers pulled out five bodies and an empty liquor bottle.

Two days earlier in Luzerne County, an hour drive north, five men and a woman were four-wheeling along the trails of an abandoned strip mine. The trail turned, their Jeep rolled onto a frozen pit, broke through the ice and sank.

One man swam to safety, pounding through the ice with his head.

``It’s so sad. All those lives,″ said Ruth Cunningham, whose only son, Chris Richardson, 19, died in the Allentown crash.

She had read about the Luzerne County accident in a newspaper, then lived through the same drama herself.

``I’m looking at the paper today and seeing them pull the car out. I can’t describe the words to you. I can’t,″ Ms. Cunningham said.

Gayflor Ghanwoloku, the father of 19-year-old Allentown crash victim Somo Lake, was in an Indiana hotel room when he heard that his teen-age son had drowned. On Sunday, he was too distraught to speak about his son.

Autopsies on three of the five Allentown victims showed they all died of accidental drowning. The two other autopsies were pending.

The driver, 20-year-old Kamal Gonzalez, had a blood alcohol content level of .17 _ above the legal limit of .10, Lehigh County Coroner Scott Grim said.

In addition to Lake, Richardson and Gonzalez, 17-year-old Brian Island and 19-year-old Michael Valiente died in the crash.

In Luzerne County, the New Year’s crash seemed to touch most everyone in the little valley.

The five people killed were Steve Nowak, 22; Richard Ammons Sr., 42; William Fishburn III, 25; William Vincent, 31; and 18-year-old Jennifer Dragon.

``The way the town is around here, everybody knows everybody, so the whole town has been quiet,″ said Kelly Dragon, Jennifer’s sister.

Nowack, Ms. Dragon’s boyfriend, bought her a diamond engagement ring for Christmas, and they spent the last week searching for an apartment to share. The couple loved to talk about trucks and she spent hours watching him rebuild engines.

Days later, they died in Nowack’s Jeep after testing a new engine he had installed.

``The prime of their lives,″ said Heydt, Allentown’s mayor, ``and they’re gone.″

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