An Ashland woman on her way home from her shift as a 911 dispatcher died when a vehicle driven the wrong way by a Grants Pass man on Interstate 5 slammed into her car, ejecting her from the vehicle, Oregon State Police reported.
Karen Lee Greenstein, 58, was driving her 2006 Honda Civic just after 3 a.m. Thursday near Phoenix when she was hit head-on by a 2003 Dodge Grand Caravan driven by 32-year-old Richard Webster Scott.
Scott was driving northbound in the right-hand, southbound lane when the crash occurred, police said.
Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows wrong-way drivers are involved in 1.5 percent of all fatal crashes nationally.
There have been 77 reports of wrong-way drivers documented between milepost 80 and the California border on Interstate 5 since Jan. 1, 2011, Oregon Department of Transportation data shows. Of those, 35 caused a traffic crash. The number of drivers who were impaired by alcohol or drugs was unavailable.
Oregon State Police said wrong-way drivers typically drive on the inside lane or inside shoulder, as they often believe they are on a two-lane road. They can be intoxicated, elderly and confused, intentionally driving the wrong way to avoid a traffic jam or inattentive, mistaking off-ramps for on-ramps.
Police said motorists should keep an eye farther up the road, looking for signs such as braking or swerving traffic or headlights coming at them. Drivers should also avoid driving in the fast lane for extended periods, especially on curves.
Greenstein died at the scene, police said. She was an employee of Emergency Communications of Southern Oregon for more than 20 years.
Scott was extricated and taken to Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center with serious injuries. He was transferred to Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, where a spokeswoman said Scott was in intensive care but she could not provide his condition.
Scott does not have a criminal history in Josephine or Jackson counties, court records show.
Jennifer McCulloch, 26, an employee of the Arco gas station on Terry Lane in Grants Pass, reported Scott to the police at about 2:30 a.m. Thursday when he attempted to buy gas.
"He was very intoxicated; he was stumbling," McCulloch said. "I couldn't understand a word that he was saying. I mean he couldn't talk, he couldn't walk; I don't even know how he was functioning."
McCulloch said she pumped $27.50 worth of gas into Scott's Grand Caravan. He paid for it inside the store and was still standing inside when she alerted police.
Scott didn't notice McCulloch's call and stumbled out the door to his car, she said.
"Honestly, I am a little upset that somebody couldn't have came a little bit sooner," McCulloch said.
During the about four-minute emergency call, McCulloch said Scott attempted to pump more gas into his vehicle, was honking his horn and flashing his lights and ran into a curb before speeding away from the gas station toward the interstate.
"I remember sitting down with the cashier and I said, 'I really hope they catch him before he kills somebody,'" McCulloch said.
Following the phone call, "it couldn't have been more than two minutes later that I saw the first Grants Pass cop go up the parkway toward the freeway," she said.
Police scoured the area, including the northbound lanes of Interstate 5 between the two Grants Pass exits, but were not able to locate Scott and forwarded their information on the vehicle to Oregon State Police, according to dispatch notes.
"I know what I did was right and I know I did everything that I could do, but a part of me ... I wish I would have talked to him more to try and keep him there longer," McCulloch said. "I give my condolences to whoever lost this wonderful woman. I am sorry."
Police said a vehicle matching the description of Scott's Grand Caravan was later seen sideways on the southbound Talent off-ramp before the crash occurred.
"We're looking at alcohol as a contributing factor," said Lt. Gregg Hastings of OSP. "This is considered a criminal investigation at this point."
OSP, the Jackson County Sheriff's Department, Jackson County Fire District No. 5 and Oregon Department of Transportation responded to the crash.
The southbound lanes of I-5 were closed for about eight hours between the Talent and south Medford exits while an accident reconstruction team investigated the crash. Traffic was detoured onto Highway 99. Lanes reopened a little after 11 a.m.
OSP is asking any witnesses who saw the van driving prior to the crash to call the Southern Command Center dispatch at 541-776-6111.
The public safety community is mourning the loss of Greenstein, who was described as a respected member who was "always positive, always smiling and she had an unforgettable laugh," according to a press release from the ECSO.
"Karen was an extraordinary person and skilled dispatcher who dedicated her life to helping others," Margie Moulin, director of ECSO, said in the release.
"This is a great loss for our entire community."
In 2011, Greenstein won the ECSO Dispatcher of the Year award and was nominated several times for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International Public Safety Communications Telecommunicator of the Year, the release said.
She had worked as a dispatcher in Southern Oregon since 1991, starting at Southern Oregon Regional Communications before a move to ECSO, the release said.
Moulin noted there has been an outpouring of support from the emergency services community around the state.