By LINDA MAN and ERIK PETERSEN
The Kansas City Star
A Missouri Highway Patrol trooper died Thursday when a pickup slammed into his patrol car in a traffic stop on Interstate 70, causing the car to burst into flames.
The trooper, trapped inside, burned to death. In the passenger seat next to him was the driver of the car that he had stopped, and that motorist was critically burned. The driver of the pickup that hit them also was injured.
Trooper Micheal Newton, 25, of Higginsville, Mo., died at the scene.
The wreck occurred about 7 a.m. on eastbound I-70, about one mile west of Higginsville in Lafayette County.
Officials said Newton had stopped Michael Nolte, 48, of Overland Park for a traffic violation at 6:54 a.m. Nolte sat in the patrol vehicle as he and Newton discussed the violation. About five minutes later, dispatchers began fielding calls about a wreck from that location.
Officials said a 1-ton pickup towing a flatbed trailer drove onto the shoulder and slammed into the patrol car, which in turn struck Nolte’s Lincoln. The pickup continued for 200 feet, striking the right-side guardrail several times.
"There was a big plume of smoke. I could see it from Higginsville," said Lafayette County Sheriff Kerrick Alumbaugh, who had worked with Newton for two years. "It looked like someone had run over the (patrol) car. Mike’s car was totally engulfed from end to end."
Officials said witnesses pulled Nolte out of the window of the patrol car. He was taken to the University of Missouri Medical Center in Columbia, suffering critical burns on 40 percent of his body.
The driver of the pickup — Paul Daniel, 30, of New Hampton, Mo., — suffered less-serious injuries. He was taken to a Lexington, Mo., hospital. Missouri officials said Daniel had no record of traffic violations.
Newton grew up in Newburg, Mo., just southwest of Rolla in the Mark Twain National Forest. Family friends said he had plans to return. His wife also was from Newburg, and he had talked about being transferred to Rolla-based Troop I and building a house in the area to raise their two young children.
His family had a history with the Highway Patrol. For many years his grandfather oversaw the cafeteria kitchen at the Highway Patrol academy in Jefferson City, said Troop I spokesman Dan Crain. Newton’s father is a longtime Troop I employee, working as a groundskeeper amid several other jobs, Crain said.
"I can tell you he was quite proud of his son," Crain said. "A lot of folks have dreams of becoming a trooper, and he was very proud of that."
To become a patrolman, Newton committed himself to the department’s tough standards.
"I know this is something he really wanted to do, and he had to jump through a lot of hoops to get where he was," said Newburg High School secretary Debbie Barnes, who knows the family and remembers Newton from his days at the school.
Barnes also remembered a fun-loving guy who occasionally did not mind getting in a little trouble.
"He was always good for a laugh and a cutup and a smile," she said.
Meanwhile, Nolte’s family hurried to see him in Columbia.
Nolte is "incredibly generous with his time, with helping people out when they get into a crisis," said Susie McKenzie, who works at the Johnson County store Nolte owns, Nolte’s Bridal.
"He has an electric personality. He does not know a stranger."
On Thursday, officials worked to clear what became a grisly scene. They shut down eastbound I-70 until 11 a.m. and diverted traffic to two outer roads. The blackened crash site was surrounded by emergency vehicles with flashing lights and tow trucks.
Officials said Newton had positioned the front of the patrol vehicle slightly toward the highway, while the rear was pointed toward the embankment.
The pickup hit a glancing blow to Nolte but slammed into Newton with full force, Alumbaugh said.
Officials had not determined the cause of the wreck but did not think drugs or alcohol were factors. Instead, driver inattention was probably the major contributing factor, officials said.
"It’s a dangerous job out there," Alumbaugh said. "It makes you realize that any day it could happen to you. People don’t pay attention when they drive. People get mesmerized by the highway."
The Highway Patrol said troopers often asked motorists to sit with them in the patrol car for safety reasons. It lessens the amount of time the trooper must stand near the roadway with vehicles whizzing by. It also allows the trooper to observe the motorist and "take them out of their element."
"If they had a weapon in their car, who knows what can happen?" said Sgt. John Hotz, a spokesman with the Highway Patrol. "That’s the way we train, and it has worked well with us."
Patrol officials said motorists could opt to stay in their vehicles.
The Highway Patrol said Thursday’s wreck was thought to have been the first in which a patrol car had burst into flames when struck from the rear.
Police departments have alleged the Crown Victoria is prone to catch fire when struck from the rear at high speed. At least a dozen other officers in the country have been killed in fiery crashes in Crown Victorias since 1983.
Highway Patrol officials, however, said Ford retrofitted the agency’s 2001 and 2002 Crown Victorias to lessen the potential of ruptured gas tanks. Newton was driving a 2003 Crown Victoria, which did not need any modifications, officials said.
The location of the Crown Victoria’s gas tank between the rear bumper and the axle has been blamed in previous car fires that have killed police officers. Ford says that the vehicles are safe and that the fires are the unavoidable result of the extreme and dangerous conditions a police vehicle must operate under.
In September, Ford announced it would retrofit police Crown Victorias with plastic gas-tank shields.
A month later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration completed an investigation, finding that the car was well within federal safety standards. The report underscored that only a small percentage of police Crown Victorias suffered punctured fuel tanks in high-speed rear collisions and an even smaller percentage resulted in fatal fires.
In 2002, Ford estimated that the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor made up about 85 percent of the market.
The Star’s John Shultz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.