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Rut crash named '08 top story

Rarely does a car accident garner as much attention or generate as much public outcry as the fatal crash that occurred Dec. 10 on South University Drive in Fargo.

Accident site

Rarely does a car accident garner as much attention or generate as much public outcry as the fatal crash that occurred Dec. 10 on South University Drive in Fargo.

Given the tragic set of circumstances - the accident killed an 8-year-old girl as a city street crew was en route to fix a rut in the road that Fargo's mayor later said caused the accident - editors at The Forum have named the crash the top story of 2008, as well as the top hot-button issue of the year.

After the crash, facts came to light indicating that "the rut," as it has become known, was a factor in at least three crashes on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before the Wednesday crash that resulted in the death of 8-year-old Amanda Leininger, according to police records.

The city has hired an independent investigator to determine when city workers first knew about the rut and what actions were or weren't taken to address it.

Mayor Dennis Walaker said the investigator's re-port likely won't be released until sometime after New Year's.

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"To assure you, I don't believe there's any cover-up whatsoever," Walaker said last week. "There's a lot of people that feel real bad about this. They wish they could have done more."

Police said Amanda Leininger was riding in the backseat of the car driven by her 15-year-old sister, Jessica, when it was struck by a sport utility vehicle about 7:50 a.m. near El Cano Drive.

Amanda died at Innovis Hospital about 2:30 p.m.

The girls' uncle, Roger Fenstad, later described Amanda as "a bright, bubbly little girl, just a beautiful girl," who played piano, did well in school and loved to swim, ride bike and play soccer and basketball. Amanda would have turned 9 years old last Saturday.

After the accident, other drivers contacted the city and The Forum and told how their tires had also become caught in the same snow-filled rut, forcing them to jerk the steering wheel to get back onto the roadway, which in some cases caused the vehicle to slide sideways on the slippery road.

One such accident happened the Monday morning before the fatal accident and also involved a teenage driver who, like Jessica Leininger, attends Fargo Shanley High School. The driver wasn't injured in that crash.

Five days after the fatal crash, Fargo police released audio recordings confirming that the officer who responded to the Monday crash called the dispatch center to have the street department come out to address the rut. Dispatch relayed the message to Fargo Public Works at 8:49 a.m. - about 47 hours before the fatal accident.

Mayor Dennis Walaker told local media the day after the fatal crash that "The rut caused the accident" - a statement that surprised many because the police department hadn't finished its investigation of the accident.

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Walaker later told The Forum in a Dec. 18 interview that he had been privy to the initial police report, and that he felt it was important to let Jessica Leininger know the crash wasn't her fault.

"She has to understand that it was a condition that was beyond her control," he said.

Walaker said he realizes the city could face a lawsuit over the crash, but added "that's immaterial" and said his statement is "not going to change what happened."

The Forum and three other local media outlets requested e-mails and other open records related to the rut and accidents. The city said last week it would need $4,525 to continue processing 10,000 e-mails compiled as a result of the requests. The Forum hasn't decided whether it will pay for the documents.

Forum's top Web stories for 2008

The following stories received the most page views on www.inforum.com in a single day during 2008.

  • 28,285 - Four people remain hospitalized after Fargo home explodes; family lived in home for three years, Sept. 2.
  • 27,963 - Police identify 8-year-old girl killed in accident, Dec. 10.
  • 27,382 - Police identify fatal accident victim, who was in town for father's funeral, Feb. 25.
  • 25,105 - Severe storm headed for Fargo-Moorhead as volatile weather nails region; flying cows reported near Valley City, June 11.
  • 22,904 - Authorities identify Detroit Lakes, Minn., father and daughter killed in head-on crash, Sept. 18.
  • 21,631 - Fargo police find assault rifle, ammunition in apartment where standoff took place, Nov. 3.
  • 18,164 - Fargo man arrested after crashing into Main Avenue business, among other things, Aug. 21.
  • 18,105 - Curiosity-seekers try to get a glimpse of celebrity, June 25.
  • 18,051 - Sheriff identifies Glyndon, Minn., man who died after vehicle plunged into ditch; driver returning home from work when he crashed, Aug. 19.
  • 17,036 - Fargo's roaming black bear released into wild at Pembina Gorge area in northeast N.D., July 7.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

Related Topics: ACCIDENTS
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