By HAROLD F. COBIN
NORWALK — A man drove a car into the rock wall at the end of the Route 7 connector at Grist Mill Road Sunday morning, becoming the fifth person to die crashing into the infamous natural barrier.
Sunday evening, Sgt. Marc Lepore said the car was rented and the man was a Fairfield County resident, but further information about his identity was being withheld.
The car burst into flames, with its impact shattering several bright yellow barrels of sand placed in front of the wall as protective barriers.
A portion of a reflective sign behind the barrels was also destroyed. It displays chevrons warning drivers they must turn left or right at the T-shaped intersection.
Police received a 911 call at 3:36 a.m. reporting the crash. The first firefighters to arrive reported flames leaping from the vehicle with no hope of saving the driver.
The car ended up standing nearly vertical on its crushed engine compartment. Firefighters installed telescopic support poles against the car's underbody to keep it stable until it could be examined by an official from the state medical examiner's office and then taken away on a flatbed wrecker.
Police said there was light rain at the time of the crash. They found no skid marks on the pavement to indicate the driver tried to stop.
Hours after the accident, police examining the car in an attempt to identify the driver found a mostly-burned registration form showing its owner lived in New Jersey.
All identifying marks burned off the vehicle. Police said it appeared to be a Dodge Neon.
A plate showing the car's vehicle identification number was found in the engine compartment, but the national system used to search vehicle IDs was not operating Sunday morning. A police officer said this year's early change to daylight saving time caused the system to fail.
The rock wall marks the point where construction ended for the proposed rebuilding of Route 7 into a multi-lane expressway between Norwalk and Danbury. Fervid opposition to the plan by residents of the towns in the path of the road stopped construction, resulting in it being only a 3 1/2 mile long connector between Interstate-95 and the Merritt Parkway that terminates at Grist Mill Road, near the Wilton line.
Two crashes into the wall were determined to be suicides by the state medical examiner. Numerous other drivers have run into it accidentally but survived.
The wall's deadly reputation began in April 1998, when 33-year-old Ridgefield resident Maria Shanaphy died driving her Land Rover into it.
Similar to Sunday's incident, the first police officer at the scene reported the vehicle was enveloped in flames and could not be approached.
Six weeks later in June, Rowayton resident Joseph Muro drove his Hyundai Excel into the wall, which the medical examiner's office said was a suicide.
Also that June, the driver of a Volkswagen Jetta delivered a week earlier totaled his vehicle against the wall, but was uninjured.
In October 2002, 35-year-old John R. Guthy of Trumbull crashed his Toyota pickup truck into the wall and suffered serious injuries.
A week later Fairfield Police Officer Kirk Holzapfel, 26, drove his 1998 Lexus ES300 into the wall, which the medical examiner said was a suicide.
Holzapfel had been arrested by his department a month earlier in an alleged domestic incident involving his girlfriend, resulting in him being charged with second-degree kidnapping with a firearm and assault.
The wall's fourth fatal victim was 17-year-old Michael Dang of Stamford, whose Mazda Protege ran into the wall in November 2002.
In January 2003, the state Department of Transportation installed a row of sand-filled barrels called "Big Sandy" impact attenuators in front of the wall, along with left - and right-pointing chevron signs. An animated sign was also mounted at the top of the wall displaying yellow arrows pulsing left and right.
The department said the sand barrels were designed to make crashes survivable at speeds up to 45 miles per hour.
In July 2005, the department said it would blast the rock wall and create a landscaped overrun area called a "runaway ramp" that would allow drivers who ran through the intersection to stop safely. The blasting never took place.