Posted: Dec. 20, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

If ever there was a crash that tugged at the heart of the entire state, it was the one that took the lives of Joe Biden’s wife and baby daughter and hospitalized his two toddler sons 35 years ago, just weeks after his precocious election to the U.S. Senate. 

It was an unbearable turn of events, from one of the most daring political breakthroughs in Delaware political history to unspeakable grief, and there is no reason to make the accident appear worse than it was.

While campaigning in Iowa for the Democratic presidential nomination, however, Biden did. 

“Let me tell you a little story,” he was quoted as saying last Friday in the New York Times. 

“I got elected when I was 29, and I got elected November the 7th. And on December 18 of that year, my wife and three kids were Christmas shopping for a Christmas tree. A tractor-trailer, a guy who allegedly – and I never pursued it – drank his lunch instead of eating his lunch, broadsided my family and killed my wife instantly, and killed my daughter instantly, and hospitalized my two sons, with what were thought to be at the time permanent, fundamental injuries.” 

Except there was no drinking. There was not even speeding. The truck’s brakes checked out, as well. It was not the driver’s fault. 

Biden insisted Wednesday in a brief telephone interview from Iowa he told the story as he knew it. 

“All I said was what I heard at the time. What I heard from folks at the time is he’d been drinking,” Biden said, sounding agitated. “I don’t want to talk about it. . . . She must have pulled out. . . . It’s still painful to talk about 35 years later.” 

The embellishment is reminiscent of one of the problems that undid Biden the last time he ran for president 20 years ago. He was swallowed up mostly by plagiarism charges, but there was also an incident, taped by C-SPAN, in which Biden became irritated with a New Hampshire voter and belittled him by inflating his own uneven academic credentials. 

Among Biden’s claims, he said he was named the outstanding student in political science at the University of Delaware and was in the top half of his law school class at Syracuse University, both untrue, and won an international moot court competition, which was true. He also gibed, “I’d be delighted to sit down and compare my IQ to yours.”  

In Biden’s memoir, Promises to Keep, his explanation for that blowup was along the lines of his account of the accident – lack of knowledge. 

“I lost my temper in New Hampshire. What I’d said about my academic achievements was just faulty memory or lack of knowledge. I hadn’t remembered where I finished in my law school class. I hadn’t cared. But to say, ‘Wanna compare IQs?’ was so stupid,” Biden wrote. 

The crash involving the Biden family station wagon and the tractor-trailer driven by Curtis C. Dunn, 43, of Kaolin, Pa., occurred on Monday afternoon, Dec. 18, 1972, a week before Christmas, at the intersection of Valley and Limestone Roads in Hockessin. 

Joe Biden, who turned 30 in late November, was in Washington to set up his Senate office. Neilia Biden, 30, was at the wheel with their three young children – three-year-old Beau Biden, now the state’s Democratic attorney general, two-year-old Hunter Biden, now a lawyer in Washington, and 13-month-old Amy Biden. 

The tractor-trailer was heading toward Pennsylvania on Limestone Road when it broadsided the station wagon, sending it spinning for 150 feet, breaking the windshield and crushing in a rear door, while the truck itself skidded for 20 feet and landed on its side, according to The News Journal, which was printed in two editions in those days as The Morning News and the Evening Journal. 

Old campaign literature littered the road, along with the truck’s load of corncobs. Dunn, the truck driver, heaved himself out of the wreckage and was the first to get to the station wagon, the newspaper said. 

Neilia and Amy Biden died from the crash. Hunter Biden sustained head injuries. Beau Biden had a broken leg that kept him in the hospital beyond the start of the Senate’s new term, leading their broken-hearted father to decide to take his oath of office in the hospital chapel and to vacillate about whether he should be sworn in at all. 

“We can always get another senator, but they can’t get another father,” he said. 

The state police investigated the accident. The concern then was not that Dunn would get away with anything as serious as drunken driving, but that he could get railroaded. He had plowed into the family of a United States senator, after all. 

As the chief deputy attorney general, Jerome Herlihy was assigned to the incident. Two days later, he issued his report, clearing Dunn. 

 A story headlined, “No Charges Due for Trucker in Biden Deaths,” in the Evening Journal read: “[Herlihy] said there was no evidence that [Dunn] was speeding, drinking or driving a truck with faulty brakes. In addition, Herlihy said, witnesses to the crash near Hockessin provided no basis for a prosecution.”

No further details were released, although Herlihy knew more about the accident than he let on. Years later, he elaborated. 

It is hard to think of anyone better the Attorney General’s Office could have sent. Herlihy was a Republican, a good enough one that he served as the Republican state chairman in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but he also knew the Bidens and thought the world of Neilia. 

In the late 1960s, Herlihy and the Bidens were neighbors with a common driveway on Marsh Road in Brandywine Hundred, when Joe Biden was a new lawyer. It was before he was elected to the Senate, even before he was elected to the New Castle County Council in 1970. 

The Bidens had two German shepherds, and for better or worse, they were named “Senator” and “Governor.” When Herlihy used to pull into the driveway late at night, he would spy eyes looking at him from the bushes and call out, “Senator, is that you?” 

Herlihy, now a Superior Court judge, no longer will talk about the accident because he is constrained by his judicial office from injecting himself into a political campaign. He was interviewed about it, however, in 1998 by this writer as part of the research for Only in Delaware, a history of modern state politics. 

In that interview, Herlihy said Neilia Biden either accelerated or drifted through the intersection, and Dunn could not stop. The truck driver said she was not looking at him, her face turned away, and the state police thought she was distracted by one of the children in the back seat. 

“She was one of the sweetest people you ever could meet. It was so tragic,” Herlihy said in 1998. 

Dunn died in 1999, but Philip A. Lafferty, the truck owner he drove for, still lives in Avondale, Pa. In a telephone interview, Lafferty recalled the state police impounding the tractor-trailer and the station wagon for the investigation for a couple of days and concluding that Dunn was not at fault. 

“Nothing came of it. They had people, witnesses,” Lafferty said. “He was a good truck driver, very caring. It shook him up. It was an awful thing for all of us.” 

Biden’s remarks in Iowa were not his only version of the accident. He offered another description in a speech on Sept. 19, 2001, at the University of Delaware. His focus that day was the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, but he mentioned his personal tragedy to show he understood the country’s. 

“I got one of those phone calls,” Biden said. 

“I got a phone call saying, ‘Your wife’s dead, your daughter’s dead.’ And I’ve only said that three times in public before. But I say it here because it’s so important for you to understand. I got one of those phone calls. It was an errant driver who stopped to drink instead of drive and hit a tractor-trailer, hit my children and my wife and killed them.”

Except there was no errant drunken driver. No drinking. No speeding. Not even bad brakes.