A Baltimore City employee was killed Tuesday afternoon when police said a man veered off an interstate and sped onto downtown streets, flipping the car he was driving in front of City Hall.
Matthew Hersl, 45, was the victim, family and friends said. Hersl, an avid Orioles fan and community leader in his Little Italy neighborhood, was taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he was pronounced dead. He had worked for the city for 28 years.
A Maryland state trooper first encountered the driver on southbound Interstate 83 about 2 p.m., when the driver approached him from behind at speeds that may have exceeded 100 miles per hour, according to Sgt. Marc Black, a department spokesman.
The scene rattled bystanders in the busy pedestrian area in front of City Hall and other municipal buildings, as workers made their way outside in midafternoon on an unseasonably hot day.
Caroline Wilson, 14, a student at the Baltimore School for the Arts, said she was standing outside when she heard "these extremely loud shrieking tires" and turned to see a car in front of the building.
"It took out the electrical pole. It took out the tree," she said. "There were people who almost got hit and they were running away."
Black said the driver, who was only identified as a 43-year-old man from Baltimore, was taken into custody as he attempted to flee. He had minor injuries, and investigators were working to determine the circumstances surrounding the crash.
While witnesses reported that they saw the trooper following the car with lights flashing moments before the crash, police emphasized that the trooper had not been chasing the suspect in the black 2000 Acura TL.
The agency has a number of safety factors it considers before initiating a pursuit. "Let me assure you, there wasn't a pursuit at that point in time," Black said.
Gregory Shipley, another state police spokesman, said the driver was "fleeing something," but it was not the trooper. "It was all very quick that this occurred," Shipley said.
According to Black, Trooper Zachary Mills was returning to the Golden Ring barracks in Baltimore County and chose to drive through the city to get to Interstate 95.
The suspect approached the trooper's car rapidly from behind north of the Pleasant Street exit, and Black said the trooper activated his rear lights to indicate to the Acura's driver that the car was going too fast.
The Acura almost struck the trooper's car, then took off into downtown via the Pleasant Street exit, Black said.
Mills, a six-year veteran, continued to follow the Acura, which went through two red lights before it struck a light pole in front of City Hall and flipped over. Police said Mills did not activate his front lights and sirens until the Acura had already hit Hersl and crashed.
Some witnesses gave a different account. James McEnchin, 62, of Randallstown said he was downtown for a meeting and saw police pursuing the suspect with emergency equipment activated.
The state trooper had sirens and lights on two blocks away, McEnchin said. "The black Acura was about a block in front of them. He hesitated at the corner of Saratoga and Holliday. And he takes off as fast as he can at about at least 60 or 70 mph. He tries to negotiate the turn. He didn't make it. He slammed on the brakes and lost control of the car.
"The guy had his back turned. He didn't see him coming," McEnchin continued, referring to Hersl. "He hit the guy, knocked him up in the air, hit the tree and turned over."
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young was among the city employees who rushed outside City Hall after hearing a crash. He said he saw Hersl on the ground.
"I heard a bang, came out and saw the guy lifeless," said Young, who said city employees quickly recognized their fellow employee as someone who worked in the "coin shop."
City records from 2012 show Hersl, a cashier supervisor in the finance department's collections office, had worked for the city since June 1985.
Shipley said troopers consider a long list of factors before initiating a pursuit, including the nature and seriousness of the suspected offense, population density of the area, traffic and the performance and handling capabilities of the trooper's and suspect's vehicles. Weather conditions also play a role, as does whether police know the identity of the suspect.
He said if troopers headed into the city in pursuit of a suspect, dispatchers would call ahead to tell the city Police Department what was going on. He said pursuits rarely take troopers into Baltimore or Washington because "it is risky."
It was not clear where the trooper was coming from and why he was traveling through downtown to get to the Golden Ring barracks, which are several miles northeast of downtown. "That's something we're following up on," Shipley said.
City Councilman Brandon Scott said the tragedy could have struck anyone walking outside City Hall that day.
"It's awful," he said. "It's a beautiful day. You're walking outside. This shouldn't happen to anybody."
Hersl's sister immediately drove to Shock Trauma, where Baltimore fire paramedics had taken him, according to brother-in-law Charles Shott. She met Daniel Hersl, a Baltimore police officer and Matthew Hersl's brother, who was the first family member to arrive in the emergency room.
"We just heard the car struck a median and hit Matthew," Shott said. "I'm just hearing bits and pieces. My wife's all shook up."
Shott said Hersl was a "good man, a good guy."
He was not married and did not have any children but left behind four brothers, his sister and his mother.
"He got along with everybody," Shott said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Justin George and Carrie Wells contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun