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Alcohol suspected as factor in fatal head-on crash near Nevis

The Park Rapids Fire Department, Hubbard County Sheriff's Department and the Minnesota State Highway Patrol work to a driver from another vehicle involved in Wednesday's fatal accident on Highway 34. (Jean Ruzicka/Park Rapids Enterprise)1 / 2
Emergency crews work to extricate one of the victims of a head-on collision along Highway 34 between Park Rapids and Nevis on Wednesday afternoon. (Sarah Smith/Park Rapids Enterprise)2 / 2

A Hitterdal man died and a Minneapolis man is in critical condition following a head-on collision east of Park Rapids Wednesday afternoon.

Both victims were airlifted to Innovis Health Center in Fargo, where Robert L. McGrath, 49, Minneapolis, was treated for multiple fractures.

Dale L. McDougall, 53, Hitterdal, passed away after arrival in Fargo, a nursing supervisor at Innovis said.

The accident, which occurred at 4 p.m., snarled traffic on Highway 34 between Park Rapids and Nevis for miles before law enforcement could reroute it. The quarter-mile long accident scene was blocked off for two hours.

According to the State Patrol, McGrath swerved his eastbound Chevy Club cab truck into oncoming traffic in the westbound lane, striking a 1994 GMC Sierra. Both pickups ended up on the north side of the two-lane highway.

Gary Asproth and his wife were two vehicles behind McGrath. He and two young women driving ahead of him immediately pulled over to render assistance. The women told the State Patrol the maroon pickup was swerving on the road just before the collision. Alcohol is being investigated as the cause of the crash, the Patrol said.

"We stopped to dial 911 and put a blanket on one of the men," Gary Asproth said. "We asked him (McDougall) if he wanted us to call his wife. He said no. He was having trouble breathing and was in tough shape. It was terribly sad."

Asproth's wife, Caroline, waded in waist deep snow to get to McDougall's side. She began praying. She is a fervent believer in guardian angels and felt the presence of one near him, she said.

"You could see the courage in his face," her husband said. It wasn't that McDougall didn't want to speak with his family, but he was focusing his strength on breathing, Gary Asproth said.

Dozens of first responders descended on the scene within minutes of the first 911 call.

Emergency crews from Park Rapids and Nevis fire departments, the Hubbard County Sheriff's Department, the Minnesota State Patrol and North Memorial Ambulance worked frantically to extricate both drivers from their mangled vehicles, using pry bars, the Jaws of Life and cutting torches. It took more than an hour to free each driver.

"We told him to hang in there," Asproth said of McDougall. "We didn't want him to go into shock. It took an awful long time to get him out of the vehicle. Those guys worked long and hard."

The State Patrol said McGrath was not wearing a seat belt. Responders and eyewitnesses at the scene said they could detect alcohol on his breath; alcohol was recovered from the scene.

"We suspect alcohol" as a factor, said Highway Patrol investigating officer Dion Pederson. Blood tests were taken and sent to the BCA lab Thursday. Pederson said those usually take two weeks to process.

The roadway was clear but wet at the time of the crash. There were no passengers in either vehicle.

Pederson immediately began an accident reconstruction, with assistance from a State Patrol plane he called in for help. It took aerial photos.

Pederson said he also immediately called for "two sets of jaws and two air cares" when he arrived on the scene four minutes after the crash.

He said he doubts the road conditions were a factor, nor was speed.

"The damage was consistent with normal highway speeds," he said. "Those were two full-sized pickups with four-wheel drive."

But Pederson said he won't rule out anything until the investigation is completed. Meanwhile he visited with County Attorney Don Dearstyne Thursday about possible charges being filed.

Pederson said McGrath was still sedated and unable to give a statement to officers in Fargo as of Thursday night.

Friday morning he was listed in critical but stable condition.

"I was heading out of L&M going east when we made a quick turnaround. It delayed us one minute," Gary Asproth said. "It could have been me instead of him and I thought how lucky I was. I said prayers for him and his family last night."