Ben Weltikol isn’t the man he used to be.
He’s both less and more from years of dealing with death and tragedy out on the highways.
Weltikol, 58, is Watford City’s fire chief and certified to extricate people from the wreckage of an accident.
There is a depth of kindness in his brown eyes, but all the sorrow, pain and death those eyes have seen is there, too.
He’s a softer man and a more serious one, he says.
These past few months, especially, those eyes have seen too much. They’ve seen more than one human should have to process and try to forget.
Watford City is the county seat for McKenzie County, which has had 10 fatalities in car crashes so far this year. That’s one-third of all fatalities to date in North Dakota centered in just one county at the epicenter of the oil patch.
Several of the fatalities have involved semi trucks. When a semi meets a car, the car loses, said Sheriff Ron Rankin.
One wreck last month west of Watford City on U.S. Highway 85 literally tore a car in half, killing two teenage boys and injuring a third, when their vehicle spun on ice into the path of an oncoming semi.
Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford said, “To see in print that we have 30 percent of the state’s traffic fatalities says it all.”
Construction will start this summer on a two-year project to turn Highway 85 into a four-lane highway.
“My question is: What’s going to happen now, this summer and next summer as we wait for these improvements to be constructed?” Sanford said.
He said people are asking for reduced speeds, more law enforcement and shutting down Highway 85 passing lanes and making them turn lanes only, he said.
The passing lanes were added two years ago, but because of the traffic volume and slower semis everyone’s trying to pass, people in Watford City often call them the “suicide” lane.
Weltikol said for that accident involving the teenagers and the accumulation of them this spring, he did something he’s never done before: He called in a critical incident stress debriefing team to talk to the emergency responders in the unit.
“Quite frankly, some of these crashes are horrific,” he said. “It reached a degree of difficulty for the responders that I felt it was necessary.”
Mike Weyrauch, of the Ray fire department, is on the debriefing team. For confidentiality reasons, he can’t talk about what happened in that room with the Watford City crew a few weeks ago.
Some responders have flashbacks, where they’re doing something routine and suddenly a live video of the accident replays in their mind. Some can’t eat or sleep. Others can’t concentrate.
“After 10 or 15 of those, it builds up and compounds. The biggest thing is, they have to talk about it,” Weyrauch said.
“Their children are driving those same roads. It works on the mind,” Weyrauch said.
Jerry Samuelson, the McKenzie County emergency manager, says the Legislature needs to step up and fund paid emergency response units in the oil patch, where more than 10,000 semis, service pickups and vehicles roll down the highways everyday.
“I’m seeing the stress on these people. Lately, it’s been pretty gruesome. It’s getting to be above and beyond what volunteers should have to do,” Samuelson said.
Rep. David Drovdal, R-Arnegard, lives off the same ill-fated highway where so many of McKenzie County’s fatalities have occurred.
He’s had close calls trying to turn off to his place from Highway 85, because the passing lane and left turn lane are one and the same. While he’s stopped waiting for an opening, drivers are coming up behind him at 80 mph.
“It’s very dangerous,” he said. “When I go to town, I take the back roads. It’s much safer.”
He said he and others plan to call out legislators who campaigned for more money for oil patch infrastructure now that critical fire and ambulance funding is tied up in a conference committee.
“Politics are politics, but we’re going to call them on it,” he said.
Funds to widen Highway 85 from Watford City to Williston were expedited this session, but he says he’s leaning on the Department of Transportation to move faster on the stretch from Watford City to Belfield.
That stretch of the highway borders the Theodore Roosevelt National Park north unit and bridges the Little Missouri River.
“That could extend it (the project) three to four years. The National Park Service is already objecting to it,” Drovdal said.
Weltikol said he wishes everyone would just slow down on the highway. His department responded to 246 calls last year — of those 141 were crashes — compared to 35 calls back in the pre-boom days.
People need to slow down out there and pay attention.
“There’s zero margin for error,” he said.