Investigators think drugs contributed to fatal crash on Rabbit Ears Pass |

Investigators think drugs contributed to fatal crash on Rabbit Ears Pass

The wreckage of a large SUV sits smoldering in the middle of U.S. Highway 40 on Friday afternoon just inside the Grand County line.
John F. Russell

The wreckage of Debra Emal’s Ford Expedition sits smoldering in the middle of U.S. Highway 40 on Rabbit Ears Pass.
John F. Russell

— Lab tests show that the woman who died in the fiery crash in October on Rabbit Ears Pass was under the influence of drugs.

According to a Grand County autopsy report, Debra Emal, 61, of Fraser, had not been drinking alcohol, but she had painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs in her system. She also was under the influence of marijuana, with a THC level almost twice of what is allowed under Colorado law for driving.

“It is possible that opiate intoxication/affect contributed to the events leading up to the accident,” Forensic Pathologist Michael Burson wrote in his report.

Burson ruled Emal’s death as an accident.

The crash occurred Oct. 10 while Emal was driving toward Steamboat Springs and swerved into the side of an oncoming semi hauling an empty fuel tanker. The semi driver was not injured, but Emal’s 1998 Ford Expedition burst into flames about 18 miles east of Steamboat.

The highway was closed for nearly five hours.

A trooper tried to put out the fire with an extinguisher but was unable to get to Emal.

According to the autopsy report, Emal did not have soot in her lungs. This led investigators to conclude that Emal had fatal injuries from the crash, not the fire.

According to a Colorado State Patrol accident report, Emal’s seat belt buckle was found buried in debris by the door, which indicated she was not wearing it at the time of the crash.

Before the crash, several people called Colorado State Patrol to report Emal was driving recklessly.

Troopers began looking for the Expedition.

One witness said Emal drove across the center line, over-corrected, drove into a ditch and came to a stop. Emal then drove back onto U.S. Highway 40 and almost collided with the witness’ car.

Another witness said Emal’s final swerve into the semi was consistent with the previous swerving, which led investigators to think the crash was not intentional.

About a month after the crash, a trooper interviewed Emal’s ex-husband. The ex-husband said he saw Emal the morning of the crash. He said Emal did not appear to be under the influence, and Emal told him: “See you when you get home; I’ll have dinner on the table.”

The ex-husband said that even after speaking to family and friends, he never learned what Emal was doing during the day before the crash. It also was not clear why she was driving toward Steamboat from Fraser.

According to the Sky-Hi Daily News, Emal was found guilty of careless driving in 2012. She was sentenced to one year of probation, 30 hours of community service and had to pay $695 in fines.

In 2011, Emal was found guilty of driving while ability impaired and a lane usage violation. She was sentenced to one year of probation, 30 hours of community service and ordered to obtain an alcohol evaluation and comply with its recommendations. She also was ordered to pay $680.50 in fines.

According to Emal’s obituary, she lived in Fraser for 30 years. In addition to her ex-husband, she is survived by a son, two grandsons and two brothers.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @SBTStensland

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