Hauling cargo to Chicago Jan. 13, the driver of an 18-wheel tractor-trailer called his boss in Philadelphia to say the rig's brakes were giving him trouble.
He told investigators that he was still asked to continue on to California to pick up a load of broccoli for delivery in Philadelphia. But the brake problems persisted.
On the last leg of the trip on Jan. 23 - at the Conshohocken Curve on the Schuylkill Expressway - the brakes did not stop the rig before it rammed into stalled traffic, crushing five vehicles. The driver of one - David Schreffler, 49, of Fort Washington - was killed.
Yesterday, three men were charged with vehicular homicide in the wreck: the driver, the truck's owner, and a garage owner who allegedly sold an inspection sticker for the truck for $200 without inspecting it.
In outlining the case, Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said the accident and the truck's troubled safety history should serve as a wake-up call.
"This was a 74,000-pound death machine that was careening across the highways of this country, endangering people until it took Mr. Schreffler's life," Ferman said at a news briefing where she was flanked with county and state police investigators.
The 1997 Kenworth cab and 2001 trailer had mechanical trouble on other occasions, too, having received 18 violations since June, she said.
The three men charged were being held last night in county jails.
The driver - Valerijs Belovs, 55, of Northeast Philadelphia - and the garage owner - Joseph Jadczak Jr., 61, of Delaware - were in Montgomery County prison after failing to post bails of $350,000 and $250,000, respectively.
Belovs and Jadczak did not have attorneys present in court. At his arraignment, Jadczak denied that he did not inspect the truck.
Victor Kalinitchii, 41, of Philadelphia, owner of the truck, was in Gloucester County Jail after being arrested on a fugitive warrant. Bail was $750,000.
According to an affidavit of probable cause, Belovs and Kalinitchii knew that the rig's brakes were defective and took no steps to fix them. In fact, Belovs had been stopped six times for compliance checks since June and the rig was ordered to be taken out of service on four of those occasions for faulty brakes and a falsified log-book, the document said.
Ferman said the stops were in Iowa, California, Arizona, Maryland, and Kentucky, but she could not detail exact dates or circumstances.
Asked why Belovs was allowed back on the highway after such stops without fixing the brakes, Ferman blamed what she called a "loophole" in the nation's trucking-oversight system.
"This falls under the honor system," Ferman said. "A dishonest trucker can get the vehicle back on the road without making repairs. There are evidently flaws in the system that need to be addressed."
Speaking about Pennsylvania's truck-inspection systems, a state police official who asked not to be named said yesterday in frustration: "Law enforcement did its job. We pointed out the deficiencies. It's up to the driver and the owner of the company to get them fixed."
Asked whether troopers check to make sure the repairs are made after trucks are stopped, the official said: "How are we going to check it? Are we going to have a cop sit there for 10 hours?"
Ferman said there is no agreement for one state to tell another when a truck is found to have safety violations.
But State Police Lt. Anthony Silvo, of the Philadelphia barracks, said at the briefing that a system does exist to catch offenders nationwide. Trucks are stopped at checkpoints randomly operated for safety inspections.
If violations are found at such stops, they are entered under the trucking firm's "DOT number" in a database kept by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Motor Carrier Safety Administration. State police can access the data from their cruisers.
If too many violations stack up, Silvo said, the agency can pull the trucking firm's operating license. On Feb. 2 the agency revoked the rig's operating license held by First Guild Inc. - 10 days after the crash, according to the affidavit.
When asked about First Guild, Dewane DeBruney, spokesman for the DOT agency, said he found nothing in its database.
"I can't comment on that particular crash," he said.
At the crash scene Jan. 23, Belovs, a Latvian native, told state police that he was going 45 m.p.h. when he saw the stalled traffic, according to police. "First thing, it is my fault," Belovs said. "I push brake, I push brake. . . . I pushed brake and kept rolling, rolling."
A passenger in one of the wrecked cars recalled later: "All I could hear was the sound of crunching metal."
A post-crash inspection by a licensed inspection mechanic and a crash investigator at a garage in Collegeville flagged "numerous mechanical failures" that caused the crash, the affidavit said. "Of the ten brake assemblies on the truck tractor and trailer, none were working more than 50 percent capacity," the affidavit said.
"Three brake assemblies failed completely," the experts reported. "Two were grossly out of adjustment and barely functioning. . . . All were close to rupturing or exploding."
State police said yesterday they were asking that all trucks inspected at Pratt's Auto Repair, where Belovs' sticker was issued, be reinspected. The garage was locked at midday yesterday.
Three hundred rigs are involved, police said.