PENDLETON — Cody Vela of La Grande was returning home Thursday with his girlfriend and their five children when he saw the dark pickup bearing down at them on Cabbage Hill.
“I was like, what the heck is that? Was that guy in the lane?” he recalled Monday. “It takes you second.”
The 6-mile-long grade on Interstate 84 east of Pendleton spans three lanes along the climb into the Blue Mountains. Vela and his family were heading east in their SUV in the far left passing lane, the same lane the Toyota Tacoma occupied. Vela estimated he was going about 70 mph and the pickup was zooming along at 80-85 mph.
“Luckily, we didn’t have anybody to the right of us in the second and third lanes,” he said. “I told everybody hang on.”
Vela crossed out of the way and watched the Toyota Tacoma zoom by and noted the driver, a man, was the lone occupant. Vela said he was able to pull over about a quarter-mile later and called 911. He said he overheard another dispatcher talking to another motorist about the same wrong-way driver.
Brad Samuelson of Pocatello, Idaho, may have been the first to call 911 about the wrong-way driver.
Samuelson, a pilot car driver, said he left a manufactured home in The Dalles that day was heading up the big hill in the far right lane when he came around a blind corner near milepost 224 and saw the Toyota pickup moving the opposite direction in the far left lane.
“At first it didn’t even register because he passed me on my left,” Samuelson said. “Then I went, wait a second.”
He got on his CB radio and asked other drivers if he saw what he thought he saw. Truckers confirmed it, he said, and one claimed the pickup driver had a bottle of whisky to his lips.
Samuelson said he pulled over as soon he as could and called 911, then realized how close a call this was.
“Just moments before that, I was in lane 1,” he said.
Samuelson’s dashcam captured video of the pickup at 3:36 p.m. going west in the eastbound fast lane. He provided the video to the East Oregonian, which shared it on Facebook and with other company newspapers.
State police trooper Jeremy Gunter responded to the emergency calls about the wrong-way pickup and found it near milepost 219, where other motorists forced it stopped after a minor collision.
The driver, Kenneth Oscar Field, 50, of St. George, Utah, appeared impaired, according to state police, and Gunter arrested him for driving under the influence of intoxicants and booked him into the Umatilla County Jail, Pendleton, for the DUII, reckless driving and four counts of reckless endangering. Each reckless endangering charge relates to someone who had to share the road with Field.
More charges could be coming. Gunter contacted the EO, which provided him with Samuelson’s contact information. Samuelson said he talked to state police and handed over a copy of the video.
Kristi Flanagan is glad she started her drive Thursday from Pendleton to her home in Baker City as late as she did.
Flanagan, whose daughter is a student at Blue Mountain Community College, said she was ascending the curves of Cabbage Hill when she saw the pickup parked on the left shoulder of the eastbound lanes.
The pickup was nose-to-nose with an Oregon State Police car and pointing downhill. Flanagan said she was curious because the pickup seemed to have been heading downhill when it stopped.
It wasn’t until Friday morning, when she saw the Facebook post on the Baker City Herald‘s page, that Flanagan realized what had happened not long before she passed that pickup. Flanagan said that’s quite likely the lane she would have been driving in — going the opposite direction.
“There’s usually trucks in the right two lanes,” she said. “Thank goodness we weren’t going up 20 minutes earlier.”
Vela said he was glad state police took the driver off the road. Samuelson expressed a similar sentiment.
“I’ve never encountered anything like that,” he said, “and I’m just glad no one was hurt.”
Jayson Jacoby of the Baker City Herald contributed to this story.