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DPS: Driver identified after 5 killed in wrong-way crash on US-60 near Morristown

Posted at 6:19 AM, Apr 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-05 12:08:55-04

MORRISTOWN, AZ — Five people are dead after a wrong-way crash near Morristown, according to the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

Just before 10:30 p.m. Friday, troopers responded to a two-vehicle crash on US-60 westbound at milepost 123, just before Morristown.

Investigators determined the crash involved a wrong-way driver and another passenger vehicle.

The wrong-way vehicle, a white 2005 Nissan Titan pickup truck, was reportedly traveling without headlights on when it hit a silver 2020 Chevrolet SUV head-on.

The impact caused the silver SUV to catch on fire and become fully engulfed.

The driver and only occupant of the wrong-way pickup truck died due to the crash. Authorities identified the driver as 37-year-old Michael Sytsma of Cave Creek.

It is unknown if impairment was a factor in the crash, according to DPS.

The four occupants of the SUV died at the scene and their identities have not been officially released. However, family members have identified them as Akayla Cuthbertson, 23, her best friend Jessica Harris, 25, Shirley House, 73, and a teenage boy.

A ball of fire was all that witnesses could see following the wrong-way crash.

“I was like... I need to go over there, see if there's anybody injured, see if we can get them out quick,” says Juan Gutier, witness.

With flames spreading quickly, Juan Gutier says it was already too late.

"We didn't hear anything. We didn't hear no yelling, nothing,” says Gutier.

Some witnesses say they also came close to being hit by that same driver.

"I didn't think anything of it because I thought it was on the other side of the road still until we are close to me. That's when I had to swerve to the next thing so he can bypass me so he wouldn't have hit me,” says Gutier.

A woman said she saw the driver as well a few minutes before the crash, hoping to prevent a tragic outcome by calling 911.

"I said, ‘oh, my gosh, he just almost looked like he was going to flip and then he just brought it back and drifted right back to the other lane.’ He was doing that the whole time,” says Danielle Rohrig, a witness.

She learned shortly after that it ended up fatal.

"I was just like, ‘what could I have done?’ It was like a matter of minutes that these people's lives were lost because someone made a dumb decision to drive,” says Rohrig.

Wrong-way crashes have been on the rise in Arizona, according to Alberto Gutier with the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

"Overall in Arizona last year, the number of total fatalities from 2019, we have gone up 103 more fatalities. The pandemic should have less people on the road but people seem to be driving faster, some of them impaired,” says Gutier.

Wrong-way crashes, though, are far from a new problem across Arizona.

In 2017, two Grand Canyon University students were killed by a wrong-way driver on I-17.

That led to Governor Ducey ordering state agencies to address the deadly problem, including more signage on highways and thermal camera technology.

DPS has resolved hundreds of incidents since then.

“People pull to the side, people turn around, people get pulled over by an officer but at the same time, we know people still drive the wrong way,” says Gutier.