3 in Australian family die in Frederick County crash; Police suspect driver ran stop sign at intersection


FREDERICK -- When Bechtel Power Corp. purchased the Australian company Timothy Rigby worked for, they asked Rigby to bring his family here for a brief training stint.

He and his wife, Michelle, both native Australians, agreed. The couple and their two children -- Samuel and Johanna -- arrived here in June, expecting to stay six months.

Last week, Rigby's mother, Nuala, came to Maryland for a visit. And on Friday afternoon, she, Michelle and Samuel toured Frederick County's back roads in search of arts and crafts.

Then, in one horrific instant, Rigby lost his mother, his wife and his son.

Michelle Rigby, 39, had been driving her Saturn north on Stottlemeyer Road. Three-year-old Samuel was tucked into his safety seat in the back, and Nuala Rigby, 69, was in the front passenger seat. When Michelle Rigby reached the intersection of Route 77 -- with her view of eastbound traffic partially blocked by an abandoned tin-roof shack -- she did not stop, police said.

Randy Plunkert, a signal technician with the State Highway Administration, who was driving a cherry-picker truck east, slammed into the side of Rigby's car, and the two vehicles skidded 50 yards down the road and into Leo Weller's front lawn, according to police.

The three Rigbys were pronounced dead at the scene. Plunkert was flown to Washington County Hospital in Hagerstown. He was listed in serious condition yesterday.

Police delivered the news to Rigby at his job at Bechtel. Then Rigby had to break the news to his 6-year-old daughter, Johanna, who was still at school.

Most of the Rigby's relatives are in Brisbane or Melbourne in Australia. And few of the residents at the neatly landscaped Crystal Park apartment complex, where the family lived, said they knew the Rigbys. Damien Rigby, Timothy's brother, who lives in San Francisco, caught a late flight Friday night.

"This is just a tragedy that you couldn't imagine happening to anyone. It's just surreal," Damien said yesterday. "We've just lost a big percentage of our family. It's just hard to comprehend."

Damien Rigby said his mother was nearing the end of a five-week visit to the United States. She spent four weeks with him in San Francisco and was scheduled to return home Wednesday. He said his mother and sister-in-law were roaming Frederick County's byways in search of quilts, which his mother had planned to take home as gifts for friends and family.

"I think they were just touring around. They were looking for quilts. My mother loves quilting," Damien Rigby said.

State police said yesterday they were investigating the accident, but that it appeared Michelle Rigby ran the stop sign. Although all three victims were wearing seat belts, they were killed instantly, said Sgt. Earl Page of the Maryland State Police in Frederick.

Firefighters had to cut the roof off the crushed Saturn to reach the victims.

"It really affected most of the people on the scene. Almost always when there's a child involved, it affects you differently," Page said. "If you have a wife and a child -- and everyone has a mother -- to lose that number of people in an instant, it affects you."

Kandee Natier, who has lived at the intersection for 18 years, said drivers regularly run the stop sign. Residents have long been asking the state to install warning flashers.

"I lie in bed at night and listen to the squeal of brakes," Natier said. "This is a very dangerous intersection."

At the intersection, a mile west of Catoctin Mountain Park outside Thurmont, skid marks remained on the pavement and deep gouges pocked Natier's side yard.

Leo Weller, who also lives near the intersection and was the first person on the scene, told the Frederick Post that he had seen many accidents, but that this was "the most horrible-looking mess I've ever seen."

"I knew it was only a matter of time before someone got killed. Unfortunately, it turned out to be three at once," said Weller, who has lived near the intersection for 43 years.

Michelle Rigby, a registered nurse, is survived by two sisters, Jacqueline and Irene, both of Australia. Damien Rigby said funeral arrangements had not been made.

Pub Date: 10/03/99

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