Alarms were ringing inside a dormitory at UConn in the early morning of October 16, 2016, and as firefighter Dana Barrow began driving out of a firehouse garage, the right front tire of his Chevy Tahoe bumped into something, bringing the SUV to a sudden stop.
One second passed.
And then Barrow, focused on a possible fire emergency, pressed the gas pedal, inching the 7,130-pound vehicle over the obstruction blocking his way.
That decision would come to haunt Barrow and devastate the family of Jeffny Pally, a UConn student who had fallen unconscious in front of the garage bay and suffered fatal injuries when she was crushed by Barrow’s SUV.
Now, video of the tragic incident, obtained by the Courant from Pally’s family, offers the clearest picture yet of the exact movement of Barrow’s vehicle, including the detail – never mentioned in the 274-page report created by state police – that the SUV had come to a stop before Pally was run over.
In the lengthy police report, which cleared Barrow, investigators who reviewed the video variously wrote that the SUV’s tire “contacts, pushes and travels over Pally,” “traveled over the pedestrian” and “traveled up onto and over Pally.” The report also notes that Barrow “felt a bump, but kept driving to the call, figuring he would check when he got back.” The entire report has not been released but it is part of the civil litigation surrounding Pally’s death; the state police declined further comment.
Investigators concluded that Barrow was “not knowingly involved in a motor vehicle collision.” Barrow declined through his attorney to be interviewed for this story.
Tolland State’s Attorney Matthew Gedansky told the Courant that he reviewed the surveillance video before concurring that Barrow committed no criminal or motor vehicle violations. “The video is consistent with [Barrow’s] statement that he thought he ran over equipment that was often left around the fire house area,” Gedansky said. “Another factor was that he was going to what he thought was a dorm fire.”
But Michael Walsh, the Pally family lawyer who provided access to the surveillance video after it was requested by The Courant, said the video shows that Barrow had a chance to investigate what was in the SUV’s path before choosing to drive over it.
“There was at least a moment –a moment or two – where the driver of that vehicle perceived an obstacle in his path,” said Walsh, who has filed suit against UConn and Barrow. “He hesitated. He went through a thought process. And he decided to go over that obstacle.”
“Regardless of what call he was responding to, taking the one, two, three seconds to essentially open the door, pop out, and look – I don’t understand why that wasn’t done,” Walsh said. “I don’t understand why the police didn’t look at that.”
A NIGHT OF DRINKING
The last night of 19-year-old Jeffny Pally’s life began with a glass of wine out of a SOLO cup in her boyfriend’s dorm room, according to the state police investigation. Neither Pally nor her boyfriend were old enough to legally purchase alcohol, but the boyfriend told police they both had made purchases at a nearby package store that didn’t ask for ID.
After the drink, the boyfriend told police, he filled a water bottle with wine for Jeffny to take to a friend’s dorm room. There, students were drinking alcohol in advance of returning to an off-campus house where members of Pally’s sorority had built a homecoming parade float earlier in the day.
In his statement to police, the boyfriend “explained that the way the victim put it was: ‘the building floats thing turns into a party’ and they both knew the intention of these parties was to drink.”
Pally arrived at the friend’s dorm room with her wine-filled water bottle between 9:15 and 9:30. Another girl had a water bottle filled with vodka and cranberry juice. At about 10:30 p.m., Pally and other sorority members got “sober rides” to the off-campus house, about two miles away, one of the sorority members told police. Sober rides are a service offered on campus to ferry students who are too drunk to drive.
About 150 people were already at the house, where a UConn fraternity had stocked up on 30-can packs of beer. Witnesses told police that a frat member asked if they were over 21, but no one was asked to show ID. Six fraternity members were later charged with alcohol-related offenses.
Pally stayed at the party about two hours. By the time she and several friends piled into an Uber car to return to their dorms shortly after 12:30 a.m., Pally was so intoxicated, one witness told police, that she kept trying to text a friend – oblivious that the friend was also in the car. Pally was slurring her words. Another girl threw up in the Uber.
Pally and the student who vomited were dropped off first, in front of Goodyear Hall, Pally’s dorm. As the Uber pulled away, a friend still in the car saw the two women walking in the darkness toward the dormitory building.
No one knows why Pally veered off.
‘I FELT A BUMP’
At about half a minute past 12:44 a.m., Pally walked into the view of a surveillance camera aimed at the back of the UConn firehouse. In the video captured by the camera, she seems unsteady on her feet, swaying back and forth as she types on her iPhone. She makes her way to the edge of the building, leans against a windowed garage door at the firehouse and drops to a sitting position. After a few minutes, her head slowly falls to her knee, and she is motionless, slumped on a concrete apron in the chill of an October morning.
Twenty minutes later, pranksters begin shooting off a stolen fire extinguisher inside a dormitory, triggering multiple alarms inside the firehouse, where Dana Barrow is working overnight as the shift commander. Barrow, 60, with 28 years as a firefighter at UConn, is seen entering from the back of the firehouse bay about half a minute past 1:13 a.m., at the same time a ladder truck is preparing to leave from a different bay. Over the next 20 seconds, he grabs a coat from a rack on the wall, climbs into the Tahoe he drives as the shift commander and presses a button on his visor to raise the large garage door, unaware that Pally is leaning against it.
As the door opens, Pally flops backwards and she lies diagonally across the door’s threshold. Only her leg is visible in the video, with her body mostly obscured from the camera by a large electric generator. Seconds later, the Tahoe, which had been backed into garage bay No. 7, begins moving slowly forward, but stops three seconds later as the SUV’s front passenger tire comes into contact with Pally’s body, the video shows.
After another second, the vehicle then labors to mount the obstacle in its path. Four seconds pass as the front tire slowly climbs over Pally and pushes her forward. The SUV’s right rear tire then rolls over the teen, the vehicle visibly bouncing as it clears her body.
At almost the exact same time, Pally’s boyfriend sends her a text. “At ur dorm,” he tells her.
State police described the “collision sequence” in clinical terms, noting that “tractional forces and linear momentum,” carried the vehicle over Pally’s body. Barrow described it as a bump.
“I felt a bump as I was pulling out,” he told investigators according to his written statement to police. “I was not sure where the bump came from. I thought it was a was a little unusual, but there have been times that our vehicles have run over equipment left on the ground in the bays.”
Barrow said he looked in a mirror as he left the station and “saw something on the ground which looked like bunker gear which is stored in the bay. I thought I would take care of it when I got back from the call, because we had 5 smoke detectors going off, and I needed to respond to the fire.”
Less than a minute after Barrow left, a dispatcher glanced at a monitor providing a live feed of the surveillance camera, and noticed the garage bay door was open, so she pressed a button to close it. “I did not notice anything out of the ordinary or anything that caught my attention,” she told police. “I was just looking to see if the door was closed.”
State police determined in their report that Pally had been pushed 19 inches by the SUV – far enough that she was no longer blocking the path of the overhead door. With Pally’s body pushed out of the way, the door closed normally.
About 25 minutes later, another dispatcher was looking at the monitor, trying to make out a shape in the dark by Bay No. 7. “Oh, that’s funny,” she recalled telling a colleague. “That kind of looks like a leg.”
“I don’t know,” the colleague recalled replying. “It looks like a shadow.”
Meanwhile, Pally’s boyfriend was still trying to contact her, sending a FaceTime request at 1:28 a.m., a Snapchat message at 1:31 and a telephone call at 1:36.
He sent a final text nine minutes later. “Going to hilltop,” he wrote. “hope u had fun.”
Russell Hall, where the alarms were sounding, is a two-minute drive from the fire station. Not long after arriving, Barrow determined there was no fire and sent away other fire vehicles.
Barrow cleared the scene and made the short drive back to the station, his Chevy Tahoe coming into the view of the surveillance camera at about 1:51 a.m. Using his side mirrors, he angled the SUV backwards toward the open garage bay, slowly moving closer and closer until the mass on the ground came into view. This time, there was no mistaking what was blocking his way.
“I noticed that it was a person because I saw a leg,” Barrow told investigators.
The surveillance camera records Barrow getting out of the Tahoe and kneeling over Pally. She is not breathing. Barrow finds no pulse. Her eyes, he later tells investigators, are “wide open and glossy.”
“I saw her mid part of her belly that had either dirt or tire marks on it,” Barrow added.
Barrow returned to the SUV and radioed for help, then went into the firehouse, where dispatchers described him as distraught and in shock. Their recollection of Barrow’s exact words varied, but all three dispatchers remember him saying: “I think I killed someone.”
Barrow returned to Pally’s body, and seconds later, paramedics and others came running out of the firehouse. They worked on Pally’s lifeless form for 16 minutes. Barrow could hear the external defibrillator audibly declaring: “No shock advised” – an indication that the machine couldn’t identify a heart rhythm.
“Following unsuccessful lifesaving efforts,” state police wrote, “Pally was presumed deceased at 0210 hours.”
Exactly 3 1/2 hours later, a state police sergeant and a UConn police sergeant were standing in the predawn darkness outside the West Hartford home of Abraham and Shinymol Chemmarappally, whose daughter hoped to become a nurse and was known around campus for her commitment to social justice and the Special Olympics.
A HEARTBROKEN FAMILY
At the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Pally became Case No. 16-16507, and her death was reduced to the clinical language of autopsies. Five of her ribs were broken, the medical examiner reported, with evidence of injuries to her lungs, liver and the left ventricle of her heart.
A blood test showed that Pally had a blood-alcohol content of .25 percent – three times the typical standard for intoxication.
Barrow joined the UConn fire department in 1990 – years before Pally and her fellow undergrads were born. He was promoted to lieutenant and then to captain and fire marshal.
“The goal in my career is the safety of the kids at the school,” he told investigators. “I can’t believe this happened to me.”
Six months later, Barrow retired from the department.
State police took dozens of photographs and made hundreds of measurements in their reconstruction of the accident. But much of the probe centered or whether or not Barrow could have seen Pally as he was driving out of the garage.
Police had him sit in the Tahoe to measure the exact height of his eyes and distance from the headrest. Police also employed a mannequin “of similar height and stature” to Pally. They used a black wig similar in length to Pally’s hair and dressed the mannequin in clothes that matched the black pants and black-and-white striped shirt Pally was wearing.
They measured the length and height of the Tahoe’s hood and calculated angles and fields of vision.
“From the line of sight reconstruction it was concluded,” state police wrote, “that Barrow COULD NOT see Pally in her seated or supine position.”
Walsh, the lawyer for the Chemmarappallys, said he has questions about the scope of the police investigation. “It was all sight-line analysis,” he said, with no focus on Barrow’s decision to continue driving after the SUV’s tire bumped against something, and again after he ran over Pally.
“It’s no defense to say, ‘I thought I just ran over an equipment bag,’ ” Walsh said. “What matters is: Are you aware you ran over something? And as soon as you become aware that you ran over something, the law imposes the obligation to stop.”
That legal wrangling will be a battle for lawyers and judges. Meanwhile, Abraham and Shiny Chemmarappally face their own battle as parents, enduring unfathomable grief nearly a year after burying their youngest child.
“The distress we feel every day at the loss of our daughter is too overpowering to possibly describe; not just for ourselves and our heartbroken family, but for the community that Jeffny loved,” the Chemmarappallys wrote in a statement provided to The Courant.
“The tragedy that our family has lived through is an experience we dearly hope no other parent – nor child, nor community – should have to face,” they wrote. “It is why we are pursuing our quest for answers about what happened the night Jeffny died. We hope and pray that by getting these answers, we might help others in the future avoid the unimaginable.”