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Safety officer falls asleep, crashes into minivan

Casey Grove
An Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility safety officer's SUV hit a minivan Wednesday, August 29, 2012, when the driver fell asleep. A woman and her daughter were injured. Photo by LEM WHEELES

A safety officer with the city's water utility fell asleep driving his work vehicle and crashed into a minivan last week, injuring a woman and her daughter.

According to a police report, Robert Sternberg on Wednesday morning was driving an Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility-owned Ford Escape SUV -- marked with the utility's logo and "SAFETY OFFICER" in big letters on the side -- headed south on Jewel Lake Road near 84th Avenue. Sternberg, who is listed as a safety program manager in the city's directory, fell asleep, veered into the oncoming lane and hit a Toyota Sienna minivan driven by Lyndsay Wheeles and carrying her 4-year-old daughter.

An ambulance took Sternberg to a hospital. Wheeles and her daughter walked away from the wrecked van. Daughter Ella was in a child's car seat and had only a bruised chin, Wheeles and her husband said in interviews. Wheeles' bruising was worse, and she suffered possible damage to her spine. She was still recuperating in bed Saturday.

"You know, I feel like I've been hit by a truck, which I have. So that makes sense," Wheeles said. "Not really able to do too much right now."

Wheeles said she had dropped her 7-year-old daughter off at school just before turning back onto Jewel Lake Road. The white Ford was soon coming at her diagonally across the center line, she said.

"I honked really quick, and in the half second I had to respond, I figured I'd get as much out of his way as I can," Wheeles said.

She swerved to the right, all the way to the edge of the shoulder, but the SUV struck Wheeles' minivan, crumpling its front left panels, a tire and her door. Wheeles and her daughter got out, and she called her husband, Lem, who was at work a few minutes' drive away at Dimond High School.

The family prayed for Sternberg, the other driver, who was taken to a hospital.

The police report says there was no odor of alcohol or any other sign that Sternberg had been drinking. He appeared tired and said he'd fallen asleep. Later at the hospital, the officer spoke to Sternberg, who said the last thing he remembered was going through the intersection at 84th Avenue. He told the officer he'd been getting only about two hours of sleep per night due to nightmares. He said he'd left work because he was too tired to function, the report says.

The police officer cited Sternberg for careless driving.

"This is a tragedy for both parties involved," said Brett Jokela, acting general manager for the city utility. "We're concerned but we stand behind Bob -- he's been a great employee to the utility."

A city spokeswoman said Saturday that Sternberg suffered a ruptured spleen and remained hospitalized.

Lyndsay Wheeles said she's glad none of the kids using the nearby school crosswalk was hit and that her daughter was mostly uninjured.

And, yes, it was a little strange getting hit by a safety officer's vehicle, she said.

"Once everybody was settled and I saw that it said 'safety officer' on the vehicle, I was like, "You have got to be kidding me,' " Wheeles said. "The irony."

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.


By CASEY GROVE
Anchorage Daily News