Image: Ohio highway crash
Bill Lackey  /  AP
Firefighters tend to one of several victims trapped in a bus from a special needs center that collided Thursday on Interstate 70 with a tractor-trailer.
updated 1/8/2010 6:11:22 PM ET 2010-01-08T23:11:22

Lonnie Acton loved playing video games. Kenny Fry, at age 61, liked to flirt. Alonso Ruffin would sometimes preach to his caretakers.

They were jokesters and hard-workers who didn't allow their mental and physical disabilities to define them.

The three were among nearly a dozen being driven to the special needs center where they lived when a tractor-trailer slammed into their bus, killing them and their driver. Six other passengers and the truck's driver were injured.

"It's going to be very, very hard because they all look out for each other," said Diana Chaney, who spent 12 years at the center before leaving just over a year ago. "If one would get sick, they'd all be worried. They're not related but they're family."

Some of those on the bus were in wheelchairs or restraints when the truck and empty tanker trailer slid across the snowy Interstate 70 median on Thursday in southwest Ohio and crashed with the small bus.

The Ohio Highway Patrol began examining both vehicles on Friday. Investigators said the highway was slick, but they weren't sure if speed could have been a factor.

'He never knew a stranger'
Those on board were returning home to Vienna Meadows, a care center just outside Springfield, from a vocational center that had sent its clients home early due to snowy weather.

Acton, 28, was born with spina bifida and had been in a wheelchair his entire life, said his stepfather, Steve Hoessli. Acton loved working at the vocational center, playing video games and using his computer. He had a girlfriend too.

"He had disabilities, but he touched a lot of people's lives," Hoessli said. "He never knew a stranger."

Alonso Ruffin, 37, the son of a minister, was a big guy who would always pester people for food. "One day he'd be very ornery, and the next day he'd be preaching to you," Chaney said.

Fry had moved into Vienna Meadows within the last two years. He liked to flirt and ask girls for their phone numbers, said May Manus, a former employee.

One of her biggest worries is that some of the home's residents don't understand life and death. "It's probably going to disturb a lot of them," she said.

She last saw a group of residents, including two of the victims, a few weeks ago when they were out on a shopping trip at Wal-Mart. "They all came up and hugged me," she said.

Familiar faces
One of the rescuers first on the scene of the crash site, about 30 miles east of Dayton, said he recognized many of the faces.

Nick Runyan, a Harmony Township volunteer firefighter, said some of the residents would buy candy and soda at the supermarket where he works. He had also see them outside playing basketball.

Most Vienna Meadows residents have their own rooms, though some prefer having a roommate. They also have daily chores, such as washing dishes or setting the dinner table. Some require little oversight while others need help with eating and other basic tasks. Residents often go out on shopping trips or to the movies.

Those who worked at vocational centers did jobs like sorting bolts or sewing together cargo nets, Chaney said.

Traci Williams, the driver of the bus, loved helping the disabled, said her father.

"She didn't mind even changing adults' diapers," Donald Adelsberger told The Columbus Dispatch. "She loved on them. It was a gift she had."

Two of the injured passengers were in serious condition Friday at a Dayton hospital. Another was in good condition. A hospital in Springfield had two of the injured in fair condition.

The truck's driver, Zygmunt Wieckowski, was treated and released Thursday.

Wieckowski, 59, of Chicago, had three speeding tickets and a couple of citations in the early 1990s but otherwise had a clean driving record. He also passed a background check allowing him to transport hazardous materials, said Illinois secretary of state spokesman Dave Druker.

He has been driving for Highway Transport Chemical, of Knoxville, Tenn., for the past two years, according to a company newsletter.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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