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E-mails detail rut situation before fatal accident in Fargo

Fargo city officials mulled lowering the speed limit to 20 mph on a stretch of South University Drive the day before a fatal accident there last month, records show.

The Forum, through an open records request, obtained copies this week of several e-mails and transcripts provided by the city to Norm Anderson, the former federal prosecutor hired by the city to conduct an independent investigation of the Dec. 10 accident that killed 8-year-old Amanda Leininger of Fargo.

Mayor Dennis Walaker has said that, based on the initial report he received from police, a rut at the edge of the roadway on South University Drive near El Cano Drive was the cause of the accident. City officials said a street crew was en route to repair the rut when the crash occurred.

The city hired Anderson to find out when city employees found out about the rut and how they responded. He has not yet prepared a report of his findings, according to City Attorney Erik Johnson.

Fargo police are still working on the accident report, Sgt. Ross Renner said.

The following is a timeline of communications leading up to the accident, based on what the city provided in response to the open records request made Monday:

Dec. 8, 8:47 a.m. and 8:49 a.m.: After a two-vehicle accident, Fargo Police Officer Troy Hannig calls the Red River Regional Dispatch Center and asks that the city Street Department be notified about the rut and suggests they may want to fill it. Two minutes later, a dispatcher relays the message to Street Department employee Anita Burnside in a phone call.

Dec. 9, 8:11 a.m.: South University Drive resident Brent Blatchford submits a comment on the feedback section of the city's Web site.

It states: "the shoulder on south university at about 4400 block on the west side needs desperate repair. I have watched 6 cars in the last two days go onto the shoulder and lose control, and am sure there have been a lot more. Please look into this asap."

Dec. 9, 8:32 a.m.: The city's webmaster, Kember Anderson, replies to Blatchford, thanking him for bringing the matter to the city's attention and stating that the information was forwarded to the Engineering Department for follow-up.

Dec. 9, 8:33 a.m.: City Engineer Mark Bittner forwards a phone message from El Cano Drive resident Debbie Helbling to Fargo Civil Engineer Kristy Schmidt.

Helbling's message doesn't mention the rut; it pertains to a temporary road installed for El Cano Drive residents. Bittner asks Schmidt if she could follow up on the request.

Dec. 9, 9:43 a.m.: Fargo Public Works Office Manager Melissa Wolf sends an e-mail to city Traffic Engineer Jeremy Gorden and carbon copies it to Public Works Maintenance Supervisor Lee Anderson.

The e-mail states: "Lee asked me to forward this to you; Al (Weigel, Public Works Operations manager) is looking at it also. Lee is looking for advice on whether we should sign 'low shoulder' or reduce traffic speeds to 20 mph through this area."

Dec. 9, 8:14 p.m.: The Fargo Police Department forwards a phone message to the Engineering Department.

The caller doesn't identify herself. Helbling said Friday that she left the message.

"Cars are spinning out on South University and El Cano Drive and if you don't, if the city does not get this fixed immediately, I will notify all people involved in an accident to sue the city if hopefully they don't get killed on this high traffic area," the caller says. "The street department needs to get out here immediately and get that fixed before somebody is seriously hurt."

Dec. 10, 7:50 a.m.: The fatal accident occurs about this time, according to police.

Dec. 10, 8:01 a.m.: Dave Leker, parks director for the Fargo Park District, e-mails Schmidt: "Our forester called again this morning and said there was another accident on S University Dr out in front of our old shop this morning. He said our foreman call (sic) Bittner yesterday but I just want to keep you informed."

Dec. 10, 8:17 a.m.: Leker sends a similar e-mail to Bittner and Gorden.

Dec. 10, 11:55 a.m.: Schmidt replies to Leker: "They are repairing it as we speak."