Crash investigators have ruled a deadly car fire along I-94 in Michigan, accidental.
Around 4:45 a.m. on March 16, Berrien County Deputy Jason Haskins was patrolling the busy interstate, near Stevensville. That’s when he saw a fully engulfed 1996 Buick sedan driving in the opposite direction, crash head on into the median cable barrier.
Haskins stopped his squad car, but couldn’t rescue the driver, Richard Rouse, 35, of Aurora Ill., in time.
"There were huge flames inside of it so there was just no way I could even get to it. I just hope there are no kids in it or nothing,” Haskins can be heard saying in squad car dash camera video obtained by NewsCenter 16.
"When a car's fully engulfed, you have a lot of factors. If you introduce oxygen into a fire by breaking a car window, he [Haskins] could have seriously injured himself and still not been any benefit to the person inside the car,” Lincoln Charter Township Police Department Chief Dan Sullivan said.
In the days following the wreck, the Berrien County Accident Reconstruction Team and Lincoln Charter Township arson investigators combed through Rouse’s charred car.
Together they concluded the fire sparked near the front passenger side door window. But what caused the 18-year-old vehicle to burst into flames at around 70 mph? Investigators have two theories: an electrical malfunction or smoldering cigarette as Rouse was an avid smoker.
“The benefit for our investigation was that Deputy Haskins was on I-94 and observed the car on fire and moving. Had we not had that observation, we wouldn't have been able to determine whether the car had been involved in an altercation with another vehicle, or been purposely dumped there and set on fire,” Chief Sullivan added.
Yet one key investigatory question remains embedded within Sullivan and his colleagues’ minds: Why wouldn’t Rouse have pulled over to escape before the flames overcame his Buick?
"Typically people drive to the side of the road and get out of the vehicle and call for help when their car catches fire. It is very uncommon to have a fatality associated with a car fire that’s not started by the crash itself,” Chief Sullivan remarked.
Rouse’s family, which chose not to hire an electrical engineer to further investigate the crash, said the 35-year-old didn’t own a cell phone. That’s led some to wonder if Rouse was attempting to drive to the nearest interstate exit for emergency assistance.
"It was in the first lane and all of a sudden it just jerked like it was trying to miss something. I seen the lights and by the time I got up here, the flames were all up inside of it,” Haskins is heard saying to a fellow sheriff’s deputy as the two stood beside the fire on that chilly March morning.
The Berrien County Coroner’s Office has since ruled Rouse’s cause of death carbon monoxide poisoning – essentially smoke inhalation.
Most of Berrien County’s 20 squad cars and SUVS are equipped with fire extinguishers. However according to Undersheriff Chuck Heit, Haskins’ unit wasn’t equipped with one because his K-9 partner travels in the back seat. Heit says that leaves little extra cargo room for miscellaneous items.