By Dave Russell
A pursuit of a suspected impaired driver Saturday ended with a truck on the hood of a Jackson County Sheriff’s Office patrol car and two men transported to hospitals.
Deputy Albin Gashi, 34, Cullowhee, at about 10:40 p.m. sat behind the wheel of a 2020 Dodge Charger patrol car monitoring traffic at the Duke Power Substation on N.C. 116 near its intersection with Mockingbird Lane.
“He watched a black Toyota Tacoma drive by his location,” N.C. Highway Patrol Trooper S.T. Hyatt said. “It had a white light violation and a taglight violation, so Deputy Gashi decided to get behind the vehicle and start observing the driver’s behavior.”
Driving east in a 2016 Tacoma, from Webster Road’s intersection with N.C. 441 towards Webster was Elijah Giovonni Hamilton, 18, of Sylva with passenger Ryder Davidson Huffman, 17, also of Sylva, Hyatt said.
“When they got into what locals call Rhinehart Straight, Deputy Gashi stated the vehicle started to increase speed and ran off the roadway with the front and rear right tires off the road,” she said. “The vehicle readjusted and did it again and Deputy Gashi turned his blue lights on to make a traffic stop for possible indications of impairment, or driving that just was off.”
The Tacoma immediately hit the concrete guardrail of the bridge on N.C. 116 over Savannah Creek near the intersection of Rhinedale Farm Road, she said.
“When the truck hit that bridge head-on, the front of the truck lifted and Deputy Gashi was not able to avoid it whatsoever and it landed on the hood of his patrol car,” she said.
Hyatt estimated Hamilton’s speed at 70 mph at the time of the collision with the guardrail, with no indication of braking. Gashi was traveling about 55 mph, she said.
“It took out about a quarter of the concrete bridge rails,” Hyatt said. “I had to call out N.C. Department of Transportation Maintenance because there were chunks of the bridge missing and rebar and such.”
Hamilton suffered a wrist injury and was transported to Harris Hospital via Harris EMS.
It took first responders from the Savannah Fire Department and Jackson County Rescue Squad about half an hour to extricate Huffman from the passenger side of the truck, she said.
Huffman suffered what paramedics stated as an “obvious leg injury, possible femur,” Hyatt said. He was taken to Mission, also via Harris EMS.
“Deputy Gashi, I am sure he was sore but he was able to get out and walk around,” she said.
Traffic was not an issue, though the road was shut down for a while, as traffic was diverted around Mockingbird and Rock Quarry roads.
Hamilton faces charges of speeding, failure to maintain lane, failure to wear seat belt and charges related to beer found in the vehicle.
“He is underage and they did have open containers in the vehicle, so I did charge them with open container and possession of an alcoholic beverage under 21, (possibly) consuming alcohol under the age of 21, but that is still under investigation,” she said.
Personnel from the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, Savannah Fire Department, Harris EMS, Jackson County Rescue Squad, NCDOT were on scene.
“Everyone did a phenomenal job,” Hyatt said. “Truly a community effort.”