A Hope man may have been trapped upside down in the wreckage of his sport-utility vehicle for up to four hours after an accident east of the Columbus Municipal Airport.
Tony Whittington, 21, who lives on County Road 500N, was flown by LifeLine Helicopter from the accident scene to IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, deputies said.
Whittington was found in his vehicle off of County Road 450N underneath the Haw Creek bridge — between Talley Road and North County Road 250 East –after a passerby reported seeing the wreckage at 9:47 a.m. Tuesday.
Suffering head trauma and other possible injuries, Whittington was listed in critical condition on Tuesday afternoon, hospital spokeswoman Danielle Sirilla said.
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After examining evidence removed from the wreckage in Flat Rock Township, deputies said a report documenting drug-related items found inside the vehicle has been forwarded to the Bartholomew County Prosecutor’s Office to consider charges against the driver, the vehicle’s sole occupant.
Tire tracks and other evidence suggests Whittington was driving a newer-model Jeep Grand Cherokee westbound on County Road 450N when the sports utility vehicle went off the right side of the road after passing the Talley Road intersection, deputies said.
The red SUV went about 60 feet along the edge of the road before going up a gradually inclining guardrail to the 120-foot-long bridge, deputies said.
“It looks like he ended up riding the guardrail across the creek,” said Capt. Dave Steinkoenig, Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department’s road division commander.
But after riding the guardrail to the other side of the creek, the Grand Cherokee went over the side of the bridge and dropped about 12 feet on to its top on the river bank — about 12 feet from the water’s edge, Steinkoenig said.
Although the top of the Cherokee was crushed and Whittington was trapped inside, the Hope man was responsive when first responders arrived, deputies said. Deputies estimated Whittington may have been trapped for as long as four hours as the engine was completely cold when deputies arrived at the scene.
As the LifeLine Helicopter was landing in a field off Talley Road, firefighters worked with Bartholomew County water rescue personnel to free Whittington from the wreckage, deputies said.
After receiving medical attention, Whittington’s condition seemed to stabilize before he was loaded onto the helicopter for the flight to Indianapolis, deputies said.
In order to remove the SUV, a mini-bulldozer was brought in to clear a small path and pull the Grand Cherokee out with a chain.
The incline was so steep, however, that the tracks of the bulldozer spun several times on asphalt. After multiple attempts, the SUV was removed from the bank, deputies said.
With the top of the SUV completely gone, Steinkoenig was able to reach into the back passenger area and pull out a yellow Bostitch tool bag, he said.
After briefly examining the contents with several emergency workers, one firefighter said it appeared that there were illegal drugs inside the bag.
That prompted Steinkoenig to quickly seal up the bag and carry it across the bridge to a patrol car parked near Talley Road.
Another deputy arrived to talk with Steinkoenig and examine the contents. In a press release distributed Tuesday afternoon, deputies confirmed that drug-related items had been found in the vehicle wreckage.
However, Detective Christopher Roberts said nothing was discovered in the tool bag that indicated that the contents in any way contributed to the accident.
The SUV also contained several large items including a tool cabinet and a garden hose, Roberts said.
Departmental policy requires that Whittington undergo toxicology tests at the hospital as part of the investigation into what was found in the tool bag, deputies said.
After examining the bridge, Bartholomew County Highway Engineer Danny Hollander said 32 bolts holding steel to concrete had been pulled out as the SUV traveled along the guardrail. Concrete damage was described by Hollander as minor, however.
After putting up barrels along the loose guardrail, the highway engineer said he saw no structural reason why the bridge should remain closed. After the area was cleaned up, including removing car parts and dirt, the bridge reopened to traffic at about 1 p.m. Tuesday.
Hollander said crews would be sent to the bridge to repair the damage as quickly as possible.
Assisting at the scene were firefighters from Clifford, Hope, Elizabethtown and Wayne Township, as well as the Columbus Fire Department.