N.M. Fire Chief Killed in Wreck Died in Line of Duty

Firehouse.com Editor's Note: The USFA announced on Aug. 7 that Tibbetts was on-duty and driving his department SUV while en route to administer a physical abilities test to a newly hired county employee at a location other than his normal duty station when the crash occured.

While traveling on Interstate 25, Tibbetts was struck by another driver causing the fire department vehicle he was operating to roll twice, cross over a retaining wall, and come to a final resting position on the vehicle's roof. Chief Tibbets died at the scene of the crash from the injuries he sustained. Incident Location: Interstate 25 just south of Bernalillo (MM 239) (USNG: 13S CV 5918 0603)

Sandoval County firefighters pulled a tough assignment Monday -- responding to a fatal accident on Interstate 25 involving their own chief.

Friends and co-workers of Fire Chief Jon Tibbetts said the county lost a dedicated professional, a well-loved friend and a “Renaissance man” whose interests included music and bicycling.

“We lost more than a leader. We lost a friend to many,” Deputy Chief James Maxon said.

Tibbetts, 59, was on duty and driving his county-issued Ford SUV north on I-25 at about 8 a.m. when, three miles south of Bernalillo, he collided with a northbound 2004 Cadillac that had struck the concrete median barrier and rebounded into traffic.

Tibbetts’ vehicle flipped, flew over the median and landed in the southbound passing lane. He was wearing a seat belt and was not ejected, Sandoval County spokesman Sidney Hill said. Tibbetts died at the scene.

State Police arrived to find debris scattered lanes on both sides of the freeway.

A Sandoval County Fire Department ambulance was the first to respond to the scene and later transported the chief’s body to the Office of the Medical Investigator in Albuquerque.

“Shock and disbelief” was the reaction among Tibbetts’ fellow firefighters, Maxon said.

The driver of the Cadillac, Armando Saenz, 22, of Albuquerque, was taken to Presbyterian Hospital in Downtown Albuquerque with minor injuries. There was no indication alcohol was involved, State Police spokesman Lt. Robert McDonald said.

“What a loss and a tragedy,” said Sandoval County Commissioner Don Leonard, who was in Arizona when he received the news.

Former commissioner Daymon Ely said Tibbetts “basically built the emergency system from scratch in Sandoval County.”

Among his achievements, officials said, was getting new fire stations built in Placitas and at Santa Ana Pueblo.

In a show of support, Santa Ana Pueblo residents and local businesses, including the Hyatt Tamaya Resort and Spa, sent food and drinks to Sandoval County Fire Station 21 on Santa Ana Pueblo, where Tibbetts was based.

The county hired Tibbetts in September 2004 to head the county’s fire and emergency medical services system. He also was charged with coordinating fire and emergency response services to the county and pueblos.

Previously, he was operations director for Albuquerque Ambulance for 18 years. He began his career as a paramedic in San Juan County.

He undertook firefighting training for the Sandoval County job, said former county manager Debbie Hays, who hired Tibbetts.

Calling him a “Renaissance man,” she said his interests included playing the violin and biking across the country.

“It’s devastating to his family and the county,” Commissioner Orlando Lucero said. Tibbetts was married with two grown children.

The accident disrupted traffic in both directions for hours. Northbound I-25 was closed and drivers were routed along N.M. 313 between Bernalillo and Roy Road. The left two lanes on southbound I-25 were closed.

State Transportation Department spokesman Phil Gallegos said the fatal accident was the first to occur on the stretch of I-25 near the two Bernalillo exits since a reconstruction project was finished nearly a year ago. The two-year project added a lane in each direction to ease congestion on the heavily traveled section of highway.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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