2 troopers, woman die in blazing crash

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Mystery surrounds wreck of vehicles in Gallia County Friday, September 29, 2006Mary Beth Lane THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH


GALLIPOLIS, Ohio – An ordinary workday morning ended in flames yesterday, leaving three families and the State Highway Patrol to grieve for lives lost along a rural Gallia County road.

Lori Smith had just dropped her daughter off at work in Gallipolis and was headed to her home in nearby Vinton when she came upon a patrol cruiser on Jackson Pike at Mitchell Road. Patrol Sgt. Dale R. Holcomb and Trooper Joshua P. Risner were inside the vehicle.

It’s unclear whether the cruiser was parked at the time, about 5:50 a.m. It’s possible, a patrol spokesman said, that Holcomb, a 21-year veteran, was on a supervisory ride-along with the younger trooper. In fact, the patrol could say little yesterday about what occurred in the seconds before the pickup truck Smith was driving plowed into the back of the cruiser and the vehicles exploded, leaving a charred tangle of metal.

Troopers said yesterday that the lack of witnesses to the crash and the resulting fire, which destroyed both vehicles, has made the investigation difficult.

What’s known is that Smith, 32, was driving her boyfriend’s Chevy Silverado, said her mother, Diana Swisher. Her boyfriend, a trucker, was away on a trip and got a call from a friend who told him he had just seen a pickup that looked like his involved in a fiery wreck.

When the boyfriend was unable to reach Smith, he called her mother. Swisher began calling her cell phone and her home phone.

There was no answer, but her mother already knew.

"I knew in my heart, a gut feeling," Swisher said as she cried in her Gallipolis home yesterday. Swisher said that she and her son went to the crash site, but troopers stopped her from getting too close. They let Smith’s brother pass, though, to identify the truck.

Her daughter’s body was burned, Swisher said.

Lori Smith worked cleaning houses and called her business Helping Hands. That was apt, her mother said. "She was just a very loving person. She was always the first to lend a hand if a friend needed a hand."

Swisher’s eyes welled up with tears again.

Ten miles north of the Ohio River town, another family grieved.

Troopers and relatives gathered outside the brick ranch home that Holcomb shared with his wife, Connie, and two teenage sons in rural Bidwell.

"He loved being a trooper," one trooper said of Holcomb, who began his career as a cadet dispatcher at the Lancaster post and transferred to Gallipolis after his promotion to sergeant in 1992.

The grieving trooper was joined by another who also had worked with Holcomb over the years at different posts and had come to support his family. They described Holcomb as a great guy and a good friend; they declined to give their names because troopers are not supposed to speak outside the chain of command.

Holcomb’s in-laws, Bud and Helen Taylor, who live just up the road, stood outside in a knot of mourners.

Holcomb, 45, loved the outdoors, they said, and had recently gone camping with them and his wife and kids during the Paw Paw Festival at Lake Snowden in Athens County.

"Those boys of his could not have had a better dad," his father-in-law said.

Risner’s father, John, had been a patrol trooper himself. Relatives huddled inside the home of the senior Risner in Wellston in Jackson County but did not want to talk about their loss.

Joshua Risner, 29, a sevenyear patrol veteran, transferred to the Gallipolis post in 2001 and lived in Jackson with his wife, Bridget, and their two children.

A total of 37 sworn State Highway Patrol officers have been killed in the line of duty since the patrol began in 1933. This is the first time two troopers have been killed in a single event.