2 dead in wrong-way crash that shut down thruway in Suffern

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Marcus Solis reports from West Nyack. (WABC)

The off-duty New York City police officer who drove the wrong way on the New York State Thruway in Suffern Tuesday morning, killing himself and another driver, was on his way to work, police confirm.

According to the New York City Police Department, 32-year-old Richard Christopher was supposed to go to the shooting range that day. The NYPD does not believe alcohol was involved because he was on his way to work.

Police are investigating the possibility that medication was involved or that Christopher was simply not paying attention. The NYPD said the officer realized very quickly he made a wrong move and tried to correct himself by pulling over.

The New York State Police Department is seeking any witnesses to the crash. One witness reported seeing a similar vehicle parked facing southbound in the median of the thruway shortly before police were notified of a wrong-way driver.

Other witnesses reported seeing a vehicle similar to Christopher's making a u-turn on the northbound side of the thruway near the Interstate 287 overpass, about a half mile from the crash scene, according to state police.

Around 7 a.m., the pick-up truck driven southbound by Christopher apparently entered the highway going in the wrong direction and slammed into another vehicle just south of exit 15. Christopher, of Suffern, worked at the 43rd Precinct in the Bronx.

Christopher drove his 2002 Dodge Dakota head-on into a 2003 Honda CRV driven by James B. Devito, 59, of Airmont, N.Y. Both drivers were pronounced dead at the scene.

Police said there were no passengers in either vehicle.

The Thruway was closed for at least two hours. Traffic was diverted off the roadway at Airmont Road and was backed up for miles.

The investigation is ongoing. "We believe that area of the Thruway is clearly marked," Thruway Authority executive director Thomas Madison said at a news conference later Tuesday. Still, he added, "the wrong-way aspect of this accident is something we take very seriously."

At their home in West Nyack, the officer's father and stepmother struggled to understand why he was going the wrong way on the interstate.

"They are investigating, that's what they told me, and they won't tell me any more. He lived on Airmont Road," said Richard Christopher Sr.

"He went to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he trained to become infantry. Then he came home for a week, then he went out to Scofield, Hawaii, where he served for infantry," said stepmother Joan Christopher. "He was there for five years. Then he went to Bosnia for one year, then he went to Iraq and Afghanistan."

When Christopher came back from Iraq, he fulfilled his dream of becoming an NYPD officer, attending the police academy and graduating in 2006.

His father says he was on his way to the 43rd precinct when the accident happened.

It is the latest in a series of wrong-way crashes over the last year and a half, something the Thruway Authority is studying very closely. "The Thruway Authority, working closely with the New York State Police, have instituted four Doppler radar-activated wrong way signs in the areas where the most wrong-way incidents have occurred along our system," said Madison.

The other driver killed in the accident, Devito, was a widower who lost his wife to cancer a year ago.

"It's very sad, he was obviously in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Devito's neighbor, Bonnie Stark.
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