Pennsylvania officer killed, K-9 injured in head-on crash

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Wednesday, May 6, 2015
Vehicle accident

LIGONIER, Pa. -- A western Pennsylvania police officer and father of six was killed in a head-on crash with a work van that was traveling the wrong way, police said.

Lt. Eric Eslary's patrol SUV collided with the van about 2 a.m. on U.S. Route 30 in Ligonier, about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh.

Eslary was a 17-year veteran of the Ligonier Township Police Department and often worked the overnight shift with his K-9 partner Blek, a German shepherd. Blek was also injured in the crash and had to be coaxed away from his partner's body by Eslary's wife, who came to the scene. The dog had refused to leave Eslary's side, township Police Chief Michael Matrunics said.

"It's a loss for the entire community," Matrunics said.

Blek was taken to a Monroeville veterinary hospital for surgery.

The officer's wife, Mary Beth Taylor-Eslary, is a 911 dispatcher for Westmoreland County. She was not on duty when her husband was killed.

The two men in the van were taken to Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown. The driver, Clair Fink III, 31, of Ligonier, was listed in serious condition while his passenger, Derek Gifford, 21, of Greensburg, was in fair condition, according to a hospital spokeswoman.

The van belonged to Westmoreland Pools and Spas, a business located in Irwin, about 25 miles west of the crash site. The owner did not immediately return calls for comment, and police did not immediately say how, or whether, the men in the van were associated with the business.

Police had not filed charges or cited Fink in the crash, but indicated they were going to test his blood to determine whether he was under the influence while driving the wrong way.

The crash occurred after Eslary crested a small hill, Ligonier police Trooper Stephen Limani said, meaning Eslary "basically had no warning."

Limani said a wooded median, not a double yellow line, separates the westbound and eastbound lanes of the U.S. Route 30 stretch where the collision occurred.

"He drove on a divided highway by every definition you can imagine as divided," Limani said of the driver. "The only people who could see him are the people coming right at him. At 1:45 in the morning, that wouldn't be very many people."

An autopsy on Eslary's body was expected later Tuesday.

"When I came out to that call last night ... I never want to see that again," said John Berger, chief of police in neighboring Ligonier Borough. "Because that's the hardest call I've ever gone on."