An elderly woman is dead after police say she pulled into oncoming traffic and was struck by a large semi truck.
The crash happened just before 11 a.m. Thursday morning in the southbound lanes of U.S. 31, just south of Johnson Road.
The accident shut down a two-mile stretch of U.S. 31 for more than three hours, causing thousands of drivers to take alternate routes.
Police say the woman, Elsie Vandewalle, 99; a longtime South Bend resident had just left a local hair salon and was turning right onto U.S. 31. However, Vandewalle didn't see the oncoming truck in the same southbound lane until it was too late.
“She was not conscious and not responsive. The odds of surviving without heavy injuries would be remote,” Det. Sgt. Ian McQueen said with the South Bend Police Department.
Odds that were significantly lessened when the semi, registered to Viking Paper Corporation of Plymouth, slammed into the tiny Ford station wagon with its fragile driver strapped behind the wheel.
The harsh sound of metallic force couldn't be drowned-out across the street at the Chickadees Gift Shop.
"The impact is just huge. There was a girl here too and we both heard it, it's something you just don't forget, it's loud,” Chickadees Gift Shop owner Marsha Bolin recalled.
Bolin quickly dialed 911 as her customers peered out the shop windows and saw how a rescue call quickly shifted into a fatal accident investigation.
"We’re looking for things such as skid marks, debris, and road conditions; anything that would help us reconstruct the scene,” McQueen added.
Officers with South Bend’s Traffic Bureau took photos, spray painted tire markings and re-routed traffic for hours as they tried to piece together the crash along a stretch of road with a rolodex of similar cases.
"Everyday that someone's in here I tell them, ‘do not go out there, go the back way, take it around to the stoplight.’ I tell them not to go because of the semis. You don't realize how fast they're coming until you're out there and then you have no place to go and they’ve gotcha,” Bolin concluded.
Police say Vandewalle’s daughter-in-law owns the salon she had just left. The crash occurred less than 50 feet from that business and was witnessed first hand by her loved ones.
South Bend's Traffic Bureau says neither alcohol nor Thursday morning’s rainy weather were factors in the fatal accident.
Paramedics transported the semi truck driver to Memorial Hospital for non-life threatening injuries. Police have yet to release his name.