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Married couple killed in I-70 crash were longtime supporters of Washburn University

Courtesy: Washburn University-Sheldon & Virginia Cohen

BONNER SPRINGS, Kan. — Sheldon Cohen, 83, and his wife, Virginia Cohen, 79, died together in their car Tuesday when the driver of an 18-wheeler failed to stop for cars that had slowed down in a construction zone on I-70 at 174th Street on the Kansas Turnpike.

The moving semi struck the Cohens’  Buick, forcing it into a guardrail, rotating it 180 degrees until it came to rest in a ditch. They died at the scene.

The Cohens lived in Topeka and were renowned donors of Washburn University, and even prior to the crash, the university’s website dedicated a page to them for their service and contributions.  Cohen joined Washburn in 1960 as an instructor in the chemistry department, and would be promoted throughout his career to professor, department chair, provost, academic vice-president, and executive director of institutional planning. He retired from Washburn University in 1999. Virginia was also an instructor of biology, earning a master’s degree in genetics from Ohio State University.  She taught for several years before leaving to raise their children.

Click here to see the Washburn University Hall of Honor that profiles the Cohens.

FOX 4’s Shannon O’Brien spoke to a close family member and a neighbor of the Cohens and will put together a video story for FOX 4 News at 5 & 6 p.m. The neighbor said they were a lovely couple who took walks holding hands.

The other victims of the tragic crash at Interstate 70 at 174th Street on the Kansas Turnpike include:

  • Ricardo Mireles, 38, of Topeka, Kan., driving a 2005 Ford Taurus
  • Teresa Butler, 61, Urbana, Ill., driving a 2015 GMC Terrain SUV
  • Passenger in Butler’s car, 63-years-old woman.

Crash investigators say a Chevrolet Avalanche and a semi (USXpress commercial motor vehicle) were stopped for construction approximately two miles west of where the collision would occur. They were in the outside, westbound lane of I-70.

Butler, 61, (in the GMC), Cohen 79, (in the Buick) and Mireles, 38, (in the Taurus) were slowing and preparing to stop behind the Chevy Avalanche in the outside lane when a semi traveling westbound crested a slight hill and, for an unknown reason, did not recognize that the traffic was stopped.

Brake marks on the pavement show the semi driver braked just prior to the first area of impact.

Butler’s GMC was forced toward the inside wall and rotated. The moving semi then struck the Cohens in their Buick, forcing it into a guardrail.

After striking the Cohens, the semi kept its momentum and struck the Taurus that was directly behind the stopped semi. The Taurus was forced under the rear of the semi trailer. The speeding semi then struck the rear of the stopped semi, causing the stopped semi to strike the rear of a Chevy Avalanche that was stopped.

The impact caused a fire to ignite between the moving semi, the the Ford Taurus, and the stopped semi.

The driver of the semi that started the chain reaction was identified as Kenny Brezettee, 56, of Houston.

The Kansas Highway Patrol confirms there has been construction in the area, and that the appropriate signs were posted.

The highway was reopened at about 1:00 a.m., Wednesday, but the charred evidence on the pavement and grass is still there for drivers to see where five lost their lives.

Courtesy: Leeta Ickes

Courtesy: Leeta Ickes

On Wednesday morning, drivers were reminded of the horrific crash, with charred grass and broken asphalt.