Chattanooga resident Christopher Dahl parked his family's dark-colored 2017 Honda CR-V along Hamill Road late Saturday night after claiming to see a safety sign lying in water overflowing from a manhole cover in the 2900 block of the two-lane road.
All that remained was an A-framed wooden structure with orange and white stripes and a light on the top that wasn't working, he said. There were no other signs along the road warning drivers of the upcoming obstruction, he added.
He turned on his hazard lights, pulled into a driveway and stepped out to pick up the sign, he said.
"I saw the metal sign in the road and thought I could move it myself but didn't when I saw I would get covered in the sewer water, plus the traffic," he said.
Traffic was speeding down the road with no shoulder and limited visibility due to rain and darkness. A car drove through the overflow, shooting water through the air, so Dahl stepped back, took three photos and got back into his vehicle.
It was 11:01 p.m., according to time stamps on the cellphone photos that were provided to the Times Free Press.
As Dahl left a minute later, a police vehicle pulled into a driveway next to the overflow, he said. He had been planning to call police to alert them of the obstruction but saw them arrive as he was leaving and figured there was no reason to report it, he said. He continued to drive away on his way home from visiting his partner's parents.
Two minutes after that, at 11:04 p.m., police say Janet Hinds sped down Hamill Road in her Honda CR-V and hit Chattanooga police officer Nicholas Galinger before fleeing the scene. He was taken to a local hospital with life-threatening injuries and later died. His funeral is being held Friday in Cincinnati.
Police say Hinds, a 54-year-old Soddy-Daisy postmaster, was driving at a "very high speed in poor weather conditions" and did not stay in her lane, according to an arrest affidavit. She also "failed to observe and react to signs posted by Public Works covering exposed manhole covers," according to the report.
According to the affidavit, Hinds struck a warning sign placed in the center of the road alerting motorists to the exposed manhole cover.
Hinds was arrested Monday and faces charges of vehicular homicide, reckless driving, leaving the scene, failure to report an accident, failure to render aid, violation of traffic control device, speeding, drivers to exercise due care and failure to maintain lane.
Her defense attorneys say the incident was an "unavoidable accident." They have since asked the court to reduce her $300,000 bond to $35,000. She has a preliminary hearing next week.
Dahl's photos show the scene on Hamill Road, the A-frame structure and the overflow just prior to the collision. His story provides the first public eyewitness account of the scene in the minutes before Galinger's death.
A city spokesperson declined to answer questions about the signage used to mark the overflow, citing an "ongoing investigation."
Dahl awoke Sunday morning to news reports of a hit-and-run on Hamill Road and a search for a 2017 or 2018 Honda CR-V. He assumed someone had seen his vehicle and thought he was involved. He later learned the suspect also drove a similar Honda CR-V. Dahl called police, he said, and gave a report to someone he only knew as J. King. A department spokesperson confirmed there is an officer named James King but said investigators were unaware of Dahl's account until the Feb. 26 Chattanooga City Council meeting.
Dahl attended the meeting, where he is a regular, to express a grievance against the city for negligence. Dahl often voices concerns about the city and county's water treatment to both the council and the Hamilton County Commission. He also ran unsuccessfully for the District 4 commission seat last year. However, during a spiel about how the city should have fixed the overflow problem several years ago, he told a shocked council that he was at the scene of the hit-and-run two minutes prior to the incident. The council members were not aware there may have been a citizen at the scene when officers arrived.
"I'm not sure I would have anything good to say," city council chairman Ken Smith said of Dahl's presentation. "I can't speak to whether Mr. Dahl had anything to do with moving the sign. I can only assume that's what he meant. If Mr. Dahl or anyone else moved the sign prior to police being notified to the manhole, then I would expect that needs to be investigated as a potential culprit to the situation that occurred after."
Dahl clarified to the Times Free Press on Wednesday that he did not touch the sign. The city council will not look into the incident further as it allows the police department to handle the investigation, Smith said.
Dahl's account and photos will be investigated, according to an email from police department spokeswoman Elisa Myzal. The traffic unit and investigators have received dozens of calls and emails with tips since the incident and the department is investigating each of them, she wrote.
"We are currently running down all leads including Dahl's. We haven't had a direct conversation with him yet, but intend to as soon as possible," she added.
Department personnel have had to handle normal responsibilities while dealing with a tragic week. Long-time Sgt. John Monroe passed away unexpectedly at his home while off-duty two days prior to Galinger's death. His procession was held Tuesday. A group of officers will also be traveling to Cincinnati Thursday for Galinger's funeral.
"Although I pulled off right before the accident occurred, I'd like to send my condolences to the Chattanooga Police Department as well as the officer that passed away," Dahl said as he ended his complaint to the council.
CORRECTION: Officer Galinger's funeral will be held Friday. A previous version of this story erroneously reported it as Thursday. This story was updated at 11:25 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019.