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Passenger: Drinking Preceded Crash That Killed Ligonier Twp. Officer

LIGONIER, Pa. (AP) - The passenger in a van involved in a head-on crash that killed a police officer said he and the driver were drinking before the collision, a newspaper reported Thursday.

Derek Gifford, 21, of Greensburg, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he and the van's driver, Clair Fink III, 31, of Ligonier, finished most of an 18-pack of beer before Tuesday's crash in Ligonier Township, about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh.

Township Lt. Eric Eslary, 40, was killed when his patrol SUV was hit by the wrong-way van in the westbound lanes of U.S. Route 30 shortly before 2 a.m. The highway's east and westbound lanes are divided by woods at the point where the crash occurred. The funeral for the married father of six is Saturday.

"We'd only been traveling in the wrong lane for maybe a minute or two," Gifford told the newspaper. "It was dark. I didn't even realize that we were in the wrong lane. But I wasn't paying attention to the road, I was on my phone."

Gifford said he and Fink worked for Westmoreland Pools & Spas, which owned the van, and finished work about 7:30 p.m. Monday.

"We had picked up an 18-pack and had drank most of it at the warehouse. I think there were two or four left," he told the newspaper. They gave one beer to a co-worker and had split the rest, Gifford said.

The Associated Press has been unable to reach the pool business' owner for comment.

State police have not filed charges in the crash, but have said Fink's blood was being tested for alcohol.

The AP has also been unable to reach Gifford and Fink for comment.

A Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center spokeswoman said Fink remained at the hospital Thursday in serious condition. Gifford has been discharged.

Police have refused to say whether there was any evidence of drinking found at the scene of the crash.

Gifford told the newspaper he suffered torn ankle ligaments, but otherwise had no broken bones, concussion or internal injuries. He went to Eslary's SUV after the crash and tried to get the officer to respond, only to have police arrive a short time later, he told the newspaper.

"I'm extremely sorry for the family and the community," Gifford said. "It's a huge loss. It was something that should have never happened. We probably shouldn't have been there in the first place."

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(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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