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4 in pickup killed in crash with semi near Askov, Minn.

Officials said two of the four killed were riding in the pickup's bed, which is discouraged but not always illegal.

Article by: By PAUL WALSH a nd LARRY OAKES

Updated: September 12, 2012 - 9:24 PM

The news reverberated quickly Wednesday from a rural Minnesota intersection and across phone and social media networks as the realization dawned that four members of a small farm community were gone.

"Wow, it really happened," Chris Saxon, a 2010 graduate of East Central High School in Sandstone, posted early Wednesday on his Facebook page. "RIP to my friends in the Askov car accident. Damn."

What authorities described as an unusually violent crash occurred at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, about a mile east of Askov, according to the Pine County Sheriff's Office.

A pickup, westbound on Rutabaga Road, turned left onto Clark Road and into the path of the eastbound semi traveling at highway speed, the Sheriff's Office said.

The crash killed four of the five people in the pickup, including two riding in the open bed in back, authorities said.

Dead were two men, ages 58 and 21, a 20-year-old woman and a 17-year-old girl, police said.

A 21-year-old man was hospitalized in Duluth in critical condition but is expected to survive, said Sheriff's Chief Deputy Scott Blackwell.

Three of the victims died at the scene, while the 20-year-old died after being airlifted to a hospital.

He said all but the 58-year-old were thrown from the vehicle. That man was sitting next to the passenger door in the cab and "took the brunt of the impact," the chief deputy said. Investigators have yet to confirm where the others were seated.

No identities have been released. Blackwell said the five in the pickup were from Askov or nearby and either were relatives or friends of one another, or boyfriend-girlfriend.

"There's lots of mourning going on," said Connie Ecklund, city clerk in Askov, a farming and logging community of 363 people.

Ecklund said townspeople felt bad not only for the families of those killed and injured, but also for the 50-year-old semi driver, who is from the area and was not injured, and for the first responders who had to deal with the tragedy.

"We're an extremely close-knit community," Ecklund said. "This is a real shock to people."

The chief deputy said, "We don't know why the pickup made a left turn" in front of the bigger truck, a "side-dumper." The semi was going 55 mph, he said, adding that the wreck was so violent that authorities couldn't immediately tell whether the three in the pickup cab were wearing seat belts.

Blackwell said authorities are "not looking at any wrongdoing" by either driver, adding that alcohol and drug use were not considered factors.

Pickup bed restrictions

Minnesota has few restrictions on people riding in a pickup bed, according to State Patrol Lt. Eric Roeske. One prevents youngsters who are covered by child safety seat laws from riding in the back, Roeske said. Also, no one can ride in a pickup bed if there's an unoccupied seat up front, he added.

Neither restriction applied in this crash.

"It's not safe, and we don't recommend it," Roeske said. "You can be seriously injured or killed. But it's not illegal."

Said Blackwell: "You've got to remember, this is a farming area."

Thirty states and the District of Columbia have laws governing the practice, most aimed at protecting children, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Pickup beds "are designed to carry cargo, not people, and are not designed to provide protection in a crash," the institute says on its website.

In 1993, Minnesota Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, proposed requiring children under 15 to wear seatbelts if riding in open pickup beds. But in the face of intense opposition from outstate colleagues from both parties, she abandoned her effort.

The youngest victim in Tuesday's crash -- the 17-year-old -- attended Crossroads Learning Center in Sandstone, an alternative school in the East Central School District, an administration official said.

"R.I.P," her cousin, over-the-road trucker Floyd Greiner Sr., posted to his Facebook page via mobile phone from a spot near Fort Pierce, Fla.

"I will always love you little cuz."

pwalsh@startribune.com • 612-673-4482 loakes@startribune.com • 612-673-1751

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