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"Information All Cars: Gone But Not Forgotten" - Officer Dies in Crash

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April 27, 2004

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"Information All Cars: Gone But Not Forgotten" - Officer Dies in Crash

Officer Down: James Lewis - [Tacoma , Washington]

Tacoma officer dies in crash

by ADAM LYNN AND STACEY MULICK; The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

A Tacoma police officer rushing to the aid of a colleague died Tuesday after he crashed his motorcycle into a car on the city's South End.

Jim Lewis was a 19-year veteran of the police department, said Mark Fulghum, Tacoma police spokesman. He became the 10th Tacoma police officer to die in the line of duty, the first to die in a motorcycle wreck.

Colleagues said the 45-year-old Lewis was a model cop who upheld the highest standards of the department. He was hardworking and dependable, they said.

"He was everything you'd ever want in a police officer," said Pat Frantz, police union president and a friend of Lewis. "We'll honor his memory and pray for his family."

Tacoma City Manager Jim Walton announced the officer's death to a somber City Council at Tuesday night's meeting, and Mayor Bill Baarsma immediately called for a moment of silence to honor Lewis. Fulghum said Lewis was married and had one son.

The collision occurred about 2:30 p.m. at South Alaska Street and South 55th Street.

Witnesses said Lewis was southbound on Alaska with his department-issued motorcycle's emergency lights flashing and its siren blaring. He was headed to help another officer on a high-risk traffic stop a few blocks farther south on Alaska, Fulghum said.

A line of cars also headed south on Alaska stopped in the street just before 55th as Lewis approached, witnesses said, and the officer swung his motorcycle into the northbound lanes to pass them. That's when a woman driving a gold Saturn two-door near the head of the line tried to turn left off Alaska onto 55th. She unknowingly steered her car right into Lewis' path, witnesses and police said. She might have been distracted by the police car down the street, which had pulled over a suspected felon, according to witnesses.

Lewis never had a chance.

"I knew he was going to hit her," said Terence Williams, 16, who witnessed the crash from his school bus. "He was going way too fast to stop."

Lewis' Kawasaki Police 1000 motorcycle slammed into the car near the front of the driver's side door.

The impact left a large hole in the Saturn's outer skin and cracked the car's windshield. It also destroyed the nose of the motorcycle and threw Lewis into the air, witnesses said.

Lewis hit his head on the pavement when he landed and lost consciousness, said Mikayla Strickler, 13, who saw the collision as she was walking home from school. "It looked real bad,'' Strickler said. "He wasn't moving."

Paramedics took Lewis to Tacoma General Hospital, where he died about three hours later. Several police officers, including interim Chief Don Ramsdell, were in the emergency room when Lewis died, Fulghum said.

The woman driving the Saturn was taken to St. Joseph Medical Center with minor injuries, Fulghum said. Her name was not released.

Minutes after the wreck, more than 20 police officers descended on the scene. They cordoned off the intersection, interviewed witnesses and began to reconstruct the crash. The investigation was continuing late Tuesday, Fulghum said.

Tuesday's collision was similar to a fatal crash involving a Pierce County sheriff's deputy in 2002. In that incident, a deputy on his way to back up a colleague was speeding south on Pacific Avenue in his patrol car with his emergency lights and sirens on. He turned into oncoming traffic to pass a line of cars and collided with a truck trying to turn left from Pacific onto 121st Street South. The truck's driver, 75-year-old Norman Pribnow of Parkland, died from injuries suffered in the crash.

In general, law enforcement officers have discretion over when to activate their emergency lights and how fast to drive when responding to calls. Once they activate their emergency lights, they are authorized to run red lights, exceed speed limits and drive into oncoming traffic if they deem it safe to do so, according to state law.

Lewis spent his entire career as a patrol officer but transferred to the motorcycle unit just recently, colleagues said. He also was involved in the department's search-and-rescue team and spent nearly a decade as a volunteer for the Tacoma Mountain Rescue Unit, they said.

"He was great to have on a rescue. He did everything by the book," said Gus Bush of Tacoma Mountain Rescue. "He was super safe."

Minutes after Lewis died, a police dispatcher broadcast a message over department channels notifying officers of his death.

"Information all cars. Gone but not forgotten," she said.

The time was 5:16 p.m.

10 officers killed in 119 years

The Tacoma police officer killed Tuesday was the 10th to die in the line of duty in the department's 119-year history. He was the first killed in a motorcycle accident.

Before Tuesday, officer William Lowry was the last officer to die in line of duty. A member of the SWAT team, he was killed Aug. 28, 1997, while trying to arrest a man in an East Side home.

In the state, 14 law enforcement officers have died in motorcycle accidents while on duty, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a nonprofit organization that operates the Web site: www.odmp.org

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