The Top Seven Most Infamous Car Wrecks

April 30, 2009

It’s easy to strap yourself into a rolling steel cage and assume you’re invincible. Cars have a way of isolating us from the outside world and lulling drivers into a false sense of security. But with events like the recent loss of Angels' pitcher Nick Adenhart, we’re provided with another sobering reminder that at the wrong time and in the wrong hands, automobiles have the potential to be lethal weapons that can trigger catastrophes of infamous proportions.

7. Left Eye Lopes Rolls an Overloaded SUV in Honduras


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Lisa Lopes was a singer for the all-girl R&B group TLC. She was known for her fiery attitude and unpredictable nature, which was most notably showcased through her public feuds with the other members of TLC, and in 1994, when she burned her then-boyfriend, NFL star Andre Rison's mansion to the ground.

In 2002, while vacationing in Honduras, an area in Central America she'd frequented in the past to temporarily step out of the limelight, Lopes was driving a rollover-prone Mitsubishi Pajero with nine other people aboard. The incident was captured on a handy-cam, which happened to be on during the accident and shows Lopes suddenly losing control of the overloaded SUV and veering off the road at high speed. Lopes was thrown from the truck and was killed instantly, while none of the other occupants of the vehicle sustained any significant injury.

6. General George S. Patton Dies in Germany Shortly After WWII Ends


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Considered one of the most iconic political and military figures of the World War II era, four star general George S. Patton had triumphed in one bloody battle after another, from the deserts of North Africa to all the way to Hitler's doorstep. Outspoken and never afraid to voice his strong opinions (including his mistrust of the Russians), many believed Patton would soon run for President.

But on December 21st, 1945, the day before he was to leave occupied Germany and return to the United States, Patton was being driven through Neckarstadt, Germany. The 1939 Cadillac Model 75 he was traveling in was struck head-on by a 2.5 ton Army truck which was attempting to make left-hand turn towards a side road in front of Patton's vehicle. The impact threw Patton violently forward, causing his head to strike a metal partition between the front and back seats.

While everyone else was unharmed, Patton was left paralyzed and died of a heart attack at the military hospital in Heidelberg. The timing of his death and the various enemies he'd had (most notably in Russia) led to numerous conspiracy theories, which typically involved the notion that the Russians had somehow orchestrated the accident because they feared Patton could become President and launch a successful offensive against the Russians later on.

5. Ted Kennedy Ditches His Car With Drowning Woman Inside


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Referred to as the "Chappaquiddick Incident,” in 1969, Ted and Mary Jo Kopechne, a former staff member of Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign, were driving in Kennedy’s 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88 after a party when Kennedy apparently drove off the Dike Bridge into Poucha Pond in Massachusetts. Ted swam to safety, but Mary Jo wasn’t as fortunate, as she died in the car. Kennedy immediately left the scene and did not contact the authorities until after the car and Kopechne’s body were discovered the following day by fishermen.

He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was sentenced to two months in jail, suspended (which basically means he served no jail time at all). In 1970, a further inquiry into the matter was conducted (in secret at the demand of Kennedy’s lawyers), and the judge determined that Kennedy’s "negligent driving appears to have contributed to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne" and could have ordered Kennedy’s arrest, but chose not to do so for unspecified reasons.

The diver who extracted the lifeless remains of Kennedy's passenger from the water came to a similar conclusion:

Had I received a call within five to ten minutes of the accident occurring, and was able, as I was the following morning, to be at the victim's side within twenty-five minutes of receiving the call, in such event there is a strong possibility that she would have been alive on removal from the submerged car.


4. Dale Earnhardt Killed During Final Lap of Dayonta 500


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Dale Earnhardt was a seven-time series champion driver with a hugely successful career in NASCAR. He'd been nicknamed "The Intimidator" because of his aggressive style and willingness to get his hands dirty when the situation called for it.

In 2001, during the final laps of the Daytona 500, Earnhardt Sr., along with his son Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Michael Waltrip were all in contention for the win. Going into turn three during the final lap of the race, Earnhardt's car made contact with the driver directly behind him, Sterling Marlin, and veered off the track. However, Earnhardt's car abruptly changed trajectory and suddenly ran head-on into the retaining wall at a speed in excess of 160mph, killing Earnhardt instantly, while his son and Waltrip finished the race, unaware of what had happened.

Earnhardt's death rocked the NASCAR world, and later evidence found that Earnhardt had refused to wear the HANS head restraining device, which, while not mandated at the time, would likely have saved his life, as well as his seatbelts being installed in a manner they weren't designed to be, as requested by Earnhardt himself to increase comfort. Regardless, the events of that day all ushered a wave of new safety regulations in NASCAR, including wholly new racecar designs (dubbed "The Car of Tomorrow") and revised retaining wall designs which would do a better job of dissipating energy of car impacts.

3. Stefan Erikkson Slices Rare Ferrari Enzo in Half, Reveals International Crime Ring


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Stefan Erikkson has lived a life prime for a movie adaptation. Hailing from Uppsala, Sweden, Erikkson is basically a thug with business connections. In the early 2000s, Erikkson had been known as the leader of a Swedish mafia outfit known as "Uppsalamaffian," until he made the unlikely change to video game development when he started a company developing the Gizmondo gaming device, set to rival Nintendo and Playstation. However, in 2005, shortly after Erikkson had relocated to California to help with the U.S. launch of Gizmondo, a Swedish newspaper unveiled Erikkson and others' ties to criminal activities. All the major players within Gizmondo resigned, Erikkson included, and the company filed for bankruptcy after using up over $300 million in the six months leading up to that point.

Afterward, Erikkson fell out of the public eye until February 21st, 2006, when Erikkson crashed a rare, million dollar Ferrari Enzo into a telephone pole at nearly 200 mph, literally splitting the car in half. Police arrived at the scene to find Erikkson, and his passenger, Trevor Karney, somehow essentially unharmed. But when the police started asking questions about what happened, things started getting weird.

Erikkson initially claimed that he was the passenger in the Enzo, which had been driven by a man known only as "Dietrich" who'd fled the scene. Karney was also apparently a passenger, but he was in another car, a Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren (an equally valuable car) which had been racing the Ferrari, and was now nowhere to be found. Police quickly surmised that Erikkson had been the driver and Karney the passenger, and that the Mercedes didn't exist.

However, before they could haul them in for further questioning, Erikkson brandished a business card claiming to be a deputy police commissioner for the San Gabriel Valley Transit Authority. In the meantime, Karney hailed a passerby to use a cell phone, and used this moment of opportunity to hide a bullet magazine from a Glock pistol in their vehicle. Shortly after, two men arrived at the scene to speak with Erikkson and Karney, claiming to be from the Department of Homeland Security.

A month later, Erikkson's fiance was pulled over in her Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren due to the fact that she didn't have valid license plates. It was quickly discovered that she did not have a license at all, and that the car had been illegally exported from Britain. This led police to find out that the crashed Enzo, the Mercedes SLR, a second Ferrari Enzo, and two other Mercedes-Benz cars had been leased in Britain and illegally exported by Erikkson, who'd left the cars unregistered so they could not be tracked. Erikkson had stopped making payments for the vehicles and had actually reported one of the cars stolen and had collected the insurance payout. The total value for the cars was in excess of $3.8 million.

Police raided Erikkson's Bel Air home just as he was making preparations to leave the U.S. He was arrested on charges of drug possession, embezzlement, grand theft auto, and weapons charges. Gizmondo co-founder Carl Freer was also arrested on weapons charges, impersonating an officer, and perjury in relation to the case. That same year, police raided the San Gabriel Transit Authority, confiscating numerous weapons, badges, and a vehicle outfitted to be an unmarked police car.

On November 3rd of 2006, a mistrial was declared in Erikkson's case due to a deadlocked jury. After the prosecution indicated their intention to retry the case, Erikkson plea-bargained to three years in jail and deportation. He was released in January of 2008.

2. Princess Diana Attempts to Flee the Paparazzi, Fails


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Probably the most widely-publicized car accident in modern times, Princess Diana's car crash in the Pont de l'Alma road tunnel in Paris with Dodi Al-Fayed sent shockwaves through the world. The Mercedes Benz S280 they were traveling in impacted the thirteenth pillar in the tunnel, which had no metal barriers surrounding it, at high speed while attempting to elude the paparazzi.

Diana, who was sitting in the back of the car and not wearing a safety belt, was forced underneath the passenger front seat which caused considerable internal damage and created a time-consuming process to get her out. Paul, along with another passenger (all of whom were not wearing seat belts) died instantly. Diana died of heart failure several hours later at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital.

After an 18-month investigation by the French government, it was determined that the main cause of the accident was the driver, Henri Paul, who had been heavily intoxicated and lost control of the car during the high speed maneuvering. Diana's funeral on September 6th, 1997 was broadcast and watched by an estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide.

1. James Dean is Killed in Head-on Collision in His Porsche 550 Spyder


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James Dean solidified his position as a cultural icon with his role in Rebel Without a Cause, in which Dean plays a misanthropic teenager with nowhere to direct his frustrations. But it was Dean's untimely death at the age of 24 that garnered him enduring legendary status.  

Outside of his career as an actor, Dean was a competitive road racer as well. He'd gotten his start at various California road race tracks driving a Porsche 356 Speedster. During the filming of Rebel Without a Cause, Dean upgraded to a rare 1-of-90 Porsche 550 Spyder, which was actually a stop-gap vehicle he would drive while a Lotus Mk X was being prepped for him.

Almost immediately, strange vibes seemed to surround this car. Bill Hickman, Dean's language coach on the film Giant, dubbed the car "Little Bastard," and Dean had the nickname adorned on the car shortly thereafter. On September 23rd, 1955, seven days before Dean's death, he introduced himself to distinguished actor Alec Guinness outside a restaurant. He offered Guinness a chance to take a look at the new racecar. Guinness told Dean the car was "sinister" and stated, "If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week."

Seven days later, on September 30th, 1955, Dean set out for a race in Salinas, California, choosing at the last minute to drive the Spyder rather than haul it on a trailer, in order to give himself more time to get familiar with the car. At 3:30pm, Dean was ticketed in Kern County for going 65 mph in a 55 mph zone.

Later, while driving westbound on US Route 466 near Cholame, California, a 1950 Ford Custom Tudor Coupe, driven by 23-year-old Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed, who did not see Dean coming in the opposite direction, attempted to take a fork in the road and caused the cars to collide head-on.

Despite decades of reports that Dean was speeding, police reports indicate that the speeding ticket he'd received earlier in the day had in fact made him more cautious, as the initial responding CHP officer, Ron Nelson, stated that the "the wreckage and the position of Dean's body indicated his speed was more like 55 mph." James Dean was rushed to Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital where he was announced D.O.A. at 5:59pm.

Moral of the story? Look out for people turning left, and wear your damned seat belt!