Friday, August 14, 2009

Crash Witness To Raise Funds For Slain VA Tow Truck Driver

Here's Tamara Dietrich's column from The Daily Press:
Makanamai Robbins attended a quilters show Sunday where her mother, a gifted Hawaiian quilter, had been a special guest.

Heading home in Newport News that night, they hit a logjam on westbound Interstate 64. It took an hour or more of creeping traffic to discover the grisly source of the backup.

"Broken glass, metal, pieces of cars all over the ground," recalled Makanamai, a Denbigh High graduate who turned 18 just the day before. "Two ambulances, a firetruck and a whole bunch of State Police.

"We went past, I saw the body on the ground and at that time I didn't know who it was and I didn't know what was going on and it hit me and it was severely upsetting."

Who it was was Andy Craig Starmer of Newport News — tow truck driver, father of an 11-year-old boy, and a Denbigh High graduate killed three days before his 37th birthday. The apparent victim of a drunk driver.

Makanamai credits her nine years as a Girl Scout for deciding what to do next: Raise funds to help with Starmer's funeral expenses.

"I read online he didn't have any life insurance and the family wasn't wealthy or anything," she explains. "And since we're in a recession, I figured I might as well help."

It's understandable and very human, this compulsion to help. To try to inject some sense — even a sense of purpose — into a random tragedy.

A man is called out one night to remove a disabled van along a highway. He shoos the van driver farther off the road out of harm's way because, as his boss put it in one news report, "you never know what happens out here," and just as he's fastening the final chain a pickup truck out of nowhere smashes into his wrecker, which dominoes into him, slinging his body 100 feet and his soul into infinity.

The commonwealth's attorney has charged William Charles Burns, 51, of Newport News with DUI manslaughter in Starmer's death, a charge levied when someone is suspected of driving drunk and unintentionally causing the death of another person. Burns was injured but is recovering.

Wrecker work is dangerous business. According to a spokeswoman at the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum in Chattanooga, Tenn., drivers die on the job in the same proportion as firefighters and police officers.

If it's not car owners upset over repossessions, it's motorists too careless to notice flashing lights, too arrogant to give a lane or too drunk behind the wheel.

Now the museum's Wall of the Fallen has one more name to add to the list.

Starmer's funeral was Thursday. At his viewing Wednesday was the widow of a tow truck driver slain just over four years ago — killed not in the line of service like Starmer, but simply because he was a tow truck driver.

John Drees was stabbed to death in June 2005 along with his best friend, Bobby Gowing, in the Denbigh garage where Drees was doing some mechanic work, by a guy who had a beef with some other driver and wanted revenge.

Like I say — senseless.

That guy and his two accomplices pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty and are serving two life sentences for murder.

Perhaps not surprising in the small world of towing, Drees and Starmer were friends, says Sue Drees, John's mother. At one time, they even worked for the same company.

She and John's widow, Karen, were called Sunday night by another tow truck driver who wanted to break the news.

"It's like murder, when somebody kills you like that," Sue told me Tuesday.

I reached her at a resort town where Karen and her new husband are on their honeymoon.

"My son's gone and I mourn him, but I don't expect her. ..." Sue says of her daughter-in-law, voice trailing off. "She's young."

Karen broke her honeymoon trip long enough to return to pay respects to Starmer.

"Tow truck drivers are dedicated," says Sue.

She was glad to hear of plans to raise donations for Starmer's family, knowing how a fund helped John's three children — the youngest but 7 weeks old when he was killed.

Thursday afternoon, Makanamai said she's still working to set up an account at a local bank. If you're interested in contributing, give her a call at 757-969-0908.

Contact Dietrich at 247-7892 or

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