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Trailer Tragedy

May 5, 2014, 10:05 PM by Matt Holsen

Trailer Tragedy

Life can change in a split second and it did for a Madison family after a crash just miles from their home involving a loose trailer.  Roger Hopf lost his wife that day while his four daughters lost their mother.

On a road near Madison back in the summer of 2010, the Hopf family dynamic changed forever. Hopf remembers it like it was yesterday; he was spending time with his wife, Rebecca, as they got ready to head out for a family barbeque.

"It was kind of a strange weekend. It's almost like, she took extra special care of me. We'd been working outside and I know before we left she had to put some lotion on my ears because my ears always sunburn. We went through that. Gave her a kiss before we got in the pickup," Hopf said.

Just miles away from home on their way to their daughter's house in Baltic, they came across an oncoming vehicle towing a boat. That's when Hopf saw something unusual.

"The trailer tongue up in the air above his pickup topper," Hopf said.

Before he knew it, the trailer tongue was in his cab and his truck had taken a beating. When he gathered himself, he rushed to the passenger side to check on his wife.

"I knew at that point, when I seen the gash in her head and the size of it and the fact that it hadn't hardly bled, that she was probably gone," Hopf said.

His wife had been struck in the head by the trailer, which was back heavy, and it broke her neck. The mother to his four kids had died in his arms just a month before his daughter's 13th birthday.

"It was just like things were happening, setting this whole tragedy up.  Putting us in the right place at the right time. You think about that all the time. Should I have done something different? If I had kissed her twice before we left the house. That's all it would have taken, another split second. Things would have been changed," Hopf said.

Hopf is reliving the tough moment in hopes that others will take trailer safety seriously because it could save a life.

Motor Carrier Trooper Tommy Torok spends most of his work day inspecting trailers. From a hitch that can handle the weight to weight distribution and the proper-sized ball and coupling, there's a lot to know and sometimes people aren't very well informed.

"I would say it's a combination of not necessarily knowing the laws and a little bit of laziness.  Some people are just in a hurry and they don't hook up the breakaway brake or hook up the safety chains properly," Torok said.

Those criss-crossed safety chains can come in handy if a trailer gets loose.

In order to show you what happens when a trailer comes unhooked, we set up a simple demonstration.

On a closed course, supervised by the South Dakota Highway Patrol, a crew from Nordstrom's Automotive connected a truck and trailer for us and hit the road.

On the first pass with a back-loaded trailer, you can see the importance of the chains. Although the coupler broke away from the hitch, the guys were able to slow down and recover with little to no damage.

But when you don't use chains, your weight distribution isn't what it should be and using the wrong-size ball, at just 20 miles-per-hour, a little bump pops the trailer loose and it doesn't keep going straight. This time it veers to the left down a hill before crashing into some dead trees. 

"Just trying to simulate what could happen because it easily can happen. It didn't take us a lot of playing around to make it happen either," driver Shannon Nordstrom said.

It's a visual reminder for those ready to tow this summer. Hook it up right or you might end up changing someone else's future.

"'Mom's not going to get to see me be a teenager.'  We've had a granddaughter born since then. Named her after Grandma. Got a wedding coming up the 10th of May, no mother to help with that. You see it happen every day to other people. Boy, you have something like this happen in your life, it changes your views. Watch the right TV show, sometimes I start to get teary eyed, because I know how it's affecting people," Hopf said.

Hopf hopes better education can prevent another tragedy, but it won't bring back his Becky. The two would have celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary this summer. 

"I miss her every day, you know. Yeah, I'm trying to move on but you don't, we were very much in love on the day of the accident. That doesn't go away just because you lose somebody. It will always be there," Hopf said.

If you'd like more info on how to properly hook up a trailer, you can call the South Dakota Highway Patrol at 605-773-4578 or watch the video below for instructions.

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