1972 crash still haunts driver's family
No DUI in crash that killed Biden's 1st wife, but he's implied otherwise
By RACHEL KIPP • The News Journal • September 4, 2008
Since his vice presidential nomination, Joe Biden's 2007 statement that a "guy who allegedly ... drank his lunch" and drove the truck that struck and killed his first wife and daughter has gained national media traction.
Alcohol didn't play a role in the 1972 crash, investigators found. But as recently as last week, the syndicated TV show Inside Edition aired a clip from 2001 of Biden describing the accident to an audience at the University of Delaware and saying the truck driver "stopped to drink instead of drive."
The senator's statements don't jibe with news and law enforcement reports from the time, which cleared driver Curtis C. Dunn, who died in 1999, of wrongdoing.
"To see it coming from [Biden's] mouth, I just burst into tears," Dunn's daughter, Glasgow resident Pamela Hamill, 44, said Wednesday. "My dad was always there for us. Now we feel like we should be there for him because he's not here to defend himself."
Biden spokesman David Wade said Wednesday that the senator "fully accepts the Dunn family's word that these rumors were false."
It's unclear who first suggested alcohol was a factor in the crash, but since Barack Obama tapped Biden to be his running mate on Aug. 23, The New York Times, National Public Radio and The Economist have run stories that characterized Dunn as a drunken driver.
"The rumor about alcohol being involved by either party, especially the truck driver, is incorrect," said Jerome O. Herlihy, a Delaware Superior Court judge who was chief deputy attorney general and worked with crash investigators in 1972.
"If it were some part of a cause of the accident, there would have been a charge, simply because if you're driving under the influence and kill someone in the process -- whether it's the wife of a U.S. senator or anybody else -- there's going to be a charge," he said.
Herlihy said investigators discussed several possible causes for the crash, including that Biden's first wife, Neilia, turned her head and didn't see the oncoming truck as she exited the intersection of Limestone and Valley roads on Dec. 18, 1972.
Neither Biden's book nor his campaign Web site directly addresses the alcohol issue, but the senator has done so publicly on at least two occasions.
The New York Times reported the 2007 crowd at the University of Iowa grew silent as Biden gave his version of what happened that day.
"Let me tell you a little story," The newspaper quoted Biden as saying. "I got elected when I was 29, and I got elected November the 7th. And on Dec. 18 of that year, my wife and three kids were Christmas shopping for a Christmas tree. A tractor-trailer, a guy who allegedly -- and I never pursued it -- drank his lunch instead of eating his lunch, broadsided my family and killed my wife instantly, and killed my daughter instantly, and hospitalized my two sons, with what were thought to be at the time permanent, fundamental injuries."
Biden told a similar story when addressing an audience at the Bob Carpenter Center at the University of Delaware a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"It was an errant driver who stopped to drink instead of drive and hit a tractor-trailer, hit my children and my wife and killed them," Biden said, according to a transcript archived on his Senate Web site.
Even before Obama asked Biden to join his campaign, political observers said the senator's gaffes could be a liability in a contest where every word will be scrutinized. Biden's first presidential campaign 20 years ago was undone by charges he plagiarized parts of a speech by British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock.
Asked about Biden's accounts of the accident, Wade warned against writing anything that would "infer, paraphrase, or be anything less than precise on such a personal and tragic subject."
After the 1972 accident, Biden never sought any records from the time of the crash, nor did he seek any further investigation, Wade said.
"In remarks he made at the University of Iowa he said 'allegedly -- and I never pursued it.' " Wade wrote in an e-mail. "Nor did he encourage reporting on it then or at any other time. He has never called it or thought of it as anything other than an 'accident.' His focus was his grief over the loss of his wife and daughter and his concern for the recovery of his sons."
News reports from 1972 said Neilia Hunter Biden pulled away from a stop sign at Limestone and Valley roads about 2:30 p.m. when the tractor-trailer driven by Dunn, which was coming down a hill on Limestone Road, hit the side of her station wagon. Dunn freed himself from the truck and was the first to reach the Biden car, according to a report by the The Evening Journal, a precursor to The News Journal.
Neilia Biden and 13-month-old daughter Naomi, whom the family called Amy, were declared dead at a hospital. Son Beau, now Delaware's attorney general, broke his leg, and son Hunter suffered head injuries. Joe Biden, who had been elected to his first term in the Senate just a month before, took his oath of office at the boys' bedside.
Two days after the crash, Herlihy, a neighbor of the Bidens in the late 1960s who still considers the senator "a friend," told the paper that there was no evidence that Dunn "was speeding, drinking or driving a truck with faulty brakes." No criminal charges related to the crash were ever filed against Dunn, who lived in North East, Md.
Hamill, one of seven children, was 8 years old at the time of the accident. She remembers her father watching news reports of the crash while wearing a sling to support a shoulder injury he suffered in the accident.
She said Dunn was always "solemn" around the Christmas holidays. Years later, when her brother planned to get married on Dec. 18, Dunn told the family "I don't celebrate on that day," Hamill said.
"We're not trying to equate Sen. Biden's loss to my father's heartache," Hamill said. "But we wanted it to be known that our father never forgot that tragic day."
Hamill said it wasn't until the Inside Edition report that she became aware that the Delaware senator had said alcohol played a role in the accident. Dunn did not consume any alcohol the day of the crash, Hamill said.
She said she immediately called Biden's office after being contacted by Inside Edition and is waiting for the senator's response.
"The family feels these statements are both hurtful and untrue and we didn't know where they originated from," Hamill said.
As Hamill watched a recording of the Inside Edition report Wednesday, she gasped when the clip of Biden's comments from Iowa came on screen.
After reading a News Journal account of Biden's 2001 speech at UD, Hamill sent Biden a letter on behalf of her father. The newspaper story included Biden's description of getting the call that his wife and daughter had died, but not his comments about Dunn.
Hamill said her note to the senator described how Dunn was affected by the accident.
Printed on the senator's letter head and dated Oct. 11, 2001, the response from Biden reads:
"I apologize for taking so long to acknowledge your thoughtful and heartfelt note," Biden wrote. "All that I can say is I am sorry for all of us and please know that neither I nor my sons feel any animosity whatsoever."
Biden is a scumbag.