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Shoreham firefighter dies helping stranded motorist

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Posted on December 30, 2009 |
By John Flowers



SHOREHAM — A Shoreham firefighter died in the line of duty while helping a fellow resident whose vehicle had slid into a ditch off an icy Richville Dam Road on Sunday, Dec. 27.

Vermont State Police said Peter J. Coe, 43, died after being struck by an oncoming pickup truck as he was helping free the stranded car from the ditch.

Coe, who had been a Shoreham firefighter for around a half-dozen years, was recalled as a dedicated volunteer who was always around to lend a hand and spread good cheer.

“I don’t think people will realize the hole (his absence) will leave in the community,” said Jim Ortuna, one of Coe’s best friends and a fellow Shoreham firefighter. “As a firefighter, I trusted him with my life. He died helping somebody, which is the way he would’ve wanted it.”

It was around 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 27 that Coe and his family were traveling east on the Richville Dam Road when they saw a 2006 Toyota car stuck in the ditch. The Toyota, driven by Rachel Herrick, 26, of Shoreham, had slid into the ditch in what authorities described as icy, foggy conditions.

Coe, who was traveling with family members, pulled his vehicle into the west-bound lane of the road, facing east, in an attempt to pull out the Toyota. Police noted the stretch of road in question is on a crest of a hill and contains a slight curve.

As Coe was preparing to extricate the stranded car, a west-bound, full-size Chevrolet pickup pulling an empty flat-bed trailer crested the hill, attempted to stop but couldn’t, then went off the road on the north side where the Chevy struck Coe, who was standing outside his vehicle, then collided with a CVPS power pole and a large tree as the trailer came to rest alongside the Toyota.

The driver of the pickup, Jason K. Vandeweert, 30, of Addison, told police he saw Coe’s vehicle’s headlights in the foggy east-bound lane as he came over the hill and, after realizing he couldn’t stop in time to avoid a collision, veered off the road — not seeing Coe or the other car.

Coe died as a result of head injuries and chest trauma, according to police. Vandeweert sustained a hand laceration and a knee injury, police said, who also noted Vandeweert’s truck was totaled. Herrick, who was accompanied by her mother as well as her small child, was unhurt.

The Shoreham Volunteer Fire Department, Shoreham First Response and the Middlebury Volunteer Ambulance Association all assisted VSP at the scene of the accident.

Shoreham firefighter Jeff Treadway, who also responded to the scene, said Coe and his vehicle were not obstructing the road at the time of the accident, though Lt. Bruce Melendy said Coe’s truck was in the lane far enough to require the oncoming vehicle to take evasive action.

“It’s a very difficult situation,” Melendy said late Monday afternoon. “You have a volunteer attempting to help someone … his truck is positioned so his headlights are shining into the lane of oncoming traffic on a foggy night with the crest of the hill obscuring visibility, plus you have icy roads … It’s just a tragic outcome.”

While the department had not been called out to the scene and Coe was using his personal vehicle in an effort to extricate the ditched car, Treadway stressed that Coe was acting on behalf of the department. Coe is the first Shoreham firefighter in at least the past 30 years to die in the line of duty, according to Treadway, whom he recalled as “an outstanding member,” who “had a way of making people laugh and always saw the humor in things.”

His service went beyond firefighting.

Coe, who leaves a wife, Valerie, a son Nick and a daughter Genevieve, worked as an affordable housing property manager employed by the Addison County Community Trust (ACT). He also oversaw Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE’s) affordable housing in the county.

“This is a huge loss,” Jeanne Montross, executive director of HOPE, said of Coe’s sudden and tragic death. “He was the best property manager there could be. He really cared about the tenants, and went out of his way to make sure low-income people stayed in affordable housing.”

Ortuna agreed.

“He wasn’t just a property manager,” Ortuna said. “He was someone who cared about your situation.”

Ortuna stressed that Coe encouraged his tenants to improve their circumstances and treat their housing with respect.

“He made people feel better about themselves,” Ortuna said. “He helped a lot of people who wanted to do something with their lives.”

As the Addison Independent went to press, Coe’s memorial service had been set for Thursday, Dec. 31, at 1 p.m. at the Shoreham Congregational Church, with a gathering to follow at the town fire department.

Coe will leave a lasting legacy, Ortuna said.

“He was an unbelievable person and the greatest friend you’d ever want,” Ortuna said. “There wasn’t a project too small or too big; he’d always be there to help you. I have never seen someone so giving to strangers.”

The accident is still under investigation. Anyone with any information should contact Trooper Todd Conway at 388-4919.

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