PORTLAND — Maine State Police Trooper Douglas Cropper said the last thing he thought before he stopped a wrong-way driver on Interstate 295 by deliberately crashing into him was “just don’t hit me on the door.”
Cropper, who along with the wrong-way driver emerged unscathed from the crash in Portland on Friday, was back on the job Saturday and recounted the tense and fast-moving events.
The incident unfolded shortly after 4 p.m. during the start of holiday-week traffic on a busy stretch of highway, as the wrong-way driver was approaching Tukey’s Bridge, which connects two neighborhoods in Portland.
Cropper said he had pulled over a truck near Exit 6 on I-295 when he got the call about a 2010 Toyota Corolla heading north in the southbound lane. The car was driven by Kenneth Gill, 88, of Scarborough.
Cropper said he saw the car approaching and jumped out to try to attract Gill’s attention. When that failed, he got into his cruiser and raced north to Exit 6, getting off at Forest Avenue.
“I knew I had to get to Marginal Way and back on Exit 7 and cross over before he got to the bridge,” Cropper said.
He said he was concerned about what would happen if the driver reached oncoming traffic and the blind curves at Tukey’s Bridge.
“I knew we would be looking at more than an accident,” Cropper said.
Cropper said there are two ways to stop a wrong-way driver: either spread a spike mat and blow out the tires, or stop the vehicle with a crash. He said there wasn’t time to spread a mat.
So he went with the crash.
Cropper said he doesn’t know how fast he himself was traveling. He estimated Gill was traveling 45 to 50 mph.
Cropper managed to get back to the southbound lanes at Exit 7 and position his car to intercept the Toyota before it got on the bridge. He said he was worried about shooting past the Toyota and the consequences to the motorists ahead. “I came in pretty hard, but I was on my brakes and almost at a dead stop,” Cropper said.
The Toyota drove into his cruiser, blew a tire and stalled out.
“People started slamming on their brakes,” Cropper said.
Miraculously, no one was hurt.
Cropper said Gill appeared confused and told him he was on his way to Waterville to pay his water bill.
He said he knew he was headed the wrong way.
“He said he didn’t see any exit,” Cropper said.
Gill was not charged in the incident.
Cropper, 41, said the crash was among the scariest in a long list of high-profile incidents he has been involved with in the decade he has been patrolling the busy four-lane coastal highway that connects Portland to Augusta.
• In 2010 Cropper, a former college football player, tackled and arrested a man who fled first by car on I-295 and then on foot after failing to stop for a police check.
• In 2005, Cropper chased a car speeding up to 130 mph on I-295 in South Portland before arresting the driver at a South Portland restaurant.
• Earlier this year, he received a commendation from the Maine State Police for his role in recovering the victims of a double homicide in New Gloucester. Cropper and his fellow officers went in under the risk of gunfire to retrieve Renee Sandora, 27, and Trevor Mills, 29, who were shot in front of Sandora’s children on July 25.
Cropper, who was the subject of a Portland Press Herald photo essay earlier this year, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physical education and athletic administration from Springfield College. He grew up in Syosset, on Long Island, N.Y., and is a graduate of the Maine State Police Academy.
Cropper said Friday’s incident was just part of his job, but on Saturday he admitted the incident resulted in a lot of text and email messages from friends congratulating him.
“You become a cop to help other people and protect the innocent,” he said.
He said he has no words of wisdom about putting oneself at risk to save others.
“I just feel very lucky I wasn’t hurt, he wasn’t hurt and no one else was hurt,” Cropper said.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: [email protected]