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Crash kills bus driver on his way home (7/15/06)

Editor's note: This story was originally published July 15, 2006

A man in a Ford Probe ran a red light at 80 mph late Thursday and smashed into a pickup at the intersection of Northern Lights and Boniface Parkway, killing a city bus driver headed home from work, police said.

Gene Burch, 59, had just finished his shift at People Mover and was driving north on Boniface shortly after 11:30 p.m. Witnesses told police Burch's white Chevy pickup was in the intersection when 25-year-old Adam Milazzo's red Probe plowed into it.

"The damage is really consistent with that speed," said Lt. Nancy Reeder, head of the police traffic unit. "He shoved that pickup about 100 feet."

Burch was pronounced dead at the hospital, Reeder said. Milazzo, of Palmer, has a broken pelvis and other injuries but is expected to live, she said.

Police said they attempted to pull over Milazzo just minutes before the crash. An officer traveling east behind the Ford on Northern Lights noted "a couple of traffic violations, and he needed to pull him over," Reeder said.

Milazzo, driving about 35 mph, didn't stop when the officer first switched his lights on, she said. The officer called for backup.

Milazzo finally pulled over, just east of UAA Drive. Another officer arrived and pulled in front of Milazzo's Ford to block him in, Reeder said.

The maneuver failed: Milazzo pulled forward then backed up, striking both police cars, and took off on Northern Lights "at a high rate of speed," Reeder said.

The police did not chase him, or even follow him, she said. Instead, dispatch alerted all police cars in the area to watch for the car.

"A full two minutes later, an officer is traveling eastbound on Northern Lights, toward the intersection of Boniface, sees a lot of steam and smoke and immediately recognizes there's a wreck up there and one of the vehicles matches the description of the Ford Probe," Reeder said.

Traffic was routed around the intersection for about five hours.

Burch's death was the second in six months caused by a driver fleeing police after ramming his way out of an attempted stop.

Stephen Strain, a 35-year-old father of three, was killed Jan. 31 when Kristopher Felber, driving a truck that had been reported stolen and trying to elude police, slammed into Strain's car at Lake Otis Parkway and 20th Avenue.

Police said at the time they were not chasing Felber but driving behind him in rush-hour traffic, having spotted the stolen pickup. They fired several shots at him after he began ramming police and civilian vehicles.

Felber remains in the Anchorage jail awaiting trial on murder and other felony charges.

This time, according to Reeder, police did not even follow Milazzo.

People Mover drivers and other employees learned of Burch's death as they arrived for work Friday. Dispatchers were gently spreading the word, said Tom Wilson, People Mover director.

"It's pretty devastating to the drivers and the rest of the organization to have to deal with something like this," Wilson said. "Gene's been an employee for about nine years.

Burch drove buses nearly his entire adult life -- the bulk of his 36 years of experience logged in California before moving to Anchorage in 1996.

He clocked out at the bus depot on Tudor Road at 11:26 p.m. Thursday, Wilson said.

"Obviously the city and the department are very upset. It has a tremendous impact on all of us, and our sympathies certainly go to his family and his friends," he said.

Burch's wife and daughter live in California, and Burch planned to join them as soon as he could retire from his job, Reeder said. The family was making arrangements to travel to Anchorage today, she said.

Milazzo's friends and family were also stunned to hear about his actions, said Rob Lee, a close friend of Milazzo's and an employee at the Daily News production department.

"He's a good person," said Lee, who has known Milazzo for five years. "He cares a lot about people. He just made a bad choice."

Milazzo is an electrician who most recently worked on the North Slope but wanted to find a job out of Anchorage or even out of the country, Lee said. Friends and family were encouraging Milazzo to "get his life on track," Lee said. "I'm heart-wrenched to hear about this."

A public records database shows Milazzo has an extensive citation and arrest record that is largely made up of minor charges such as not wearing a seat belt and speeding and driving with headlights out. He was arrested for a DUI in 2002.

"He's not a felon," Lee said. "He didn't go out and try to do mean things to anybody."

Reeder said the police department's traffic unit is investigating the wreck. No charges have been filed yet, but officers typically won't arrest someone until they've been released from the hospital, she said.

She said investigators took blood samples but had no results yet.

Burch's co-workers recalled him Friday as a man who genuinely liked his job -- even last summer when he was one of two People Mover drivers temporarily blinded by a pedestrian's laser.

Wilson spoke extensively with Burch after that incident. "And one of the things that I remember him mentioning was the first thing that ran through his mind was, 'Am I going to be blinded, am I not going to be able to drive a bus for the rest of my life?' " Wilson said. "You don't do this job if you don't enjoy it. It's a very demanding, very stressful job."

Burch drove school buses for the Anchorage School District before being hired at People Mover, said Steve Kalmes, the district's transportation director.

Burch's name may ring a bell with Daily News editorial page readers. His letters were published frequently, the most recent on July 8 about an Anchorage man who shot at teens -- killing one -- when the youths apparently attempted to rob him.

"Thank goodness for our right to carry a concealed weapon in Anchorage," Burch wrote. "That man who was attacked in his own driveway by three street thugs had every right in the world to defend himself with deadly force."

Other positions Burch took in letters over the years included Alaska's need to legalize gambling, drivers' inept left-turn practices, and the city's need to increase funding for People Mover.

In 2000, a Burch letter criticized IM stickers -- "smog stickers," he called them -- as "just another blunder by some bureaucrat without a clue" that obstruct a driver's vision.

He added: "Driving is dangerous enough up here."

Daily News reporter Katie Pesznecker can be reached at


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