The seminal moment in the career of Joe Biden occurred in November 1972 when, as a 29-year-old lawyer whose only previous political experience was as a member of the New Castle County Council in Delaware, he pulled off an astounding upset victory over a Republican incumbent and won election to the U.S. Senate by a mere 3,162 votes.
Six weeks later, however, before he had assumed office, Biden’s life took the most tragic of turns when his wife Neilia and their 1-year-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in an automobile accident. For the ensuing 36 years of his Senate career, Biden famously commuted via Amtrak to Washington, D.C., from the family home in Wilmington, Delaware, daily in order to be home for his sons Beau and Hunter, who had been severely injured but survived the crash that killed their mother and sister.
As in any such tragedy, one of the paramount questions is: what caused the fatal accident? Neilia Biden’s station wagon was broadsided by a tractor-trailer truck at an intersection, but who — or what — was the underlying cause of the accident?
Social media posts circulated during Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential run declared that Biden had misrepresented the accident as being the fault of a drunken driver, and even that Biden had deliberately lied about it:
It is true that at least twice, Biden has publicly stated or alleged that the driver tractor-trailer who hit his wife’s station wagon had been drinking. During a speech he gave at the University of Delaware a week after the 9/11 terror attacks, for example, Biden said:
To the loved ones of the victims, there is nothing really we can say to erase this tragedy. And, those of you who think it’s presumptuous of me to say that … in a different circumstance, I got one of those phone calls … 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.
And in December 2007, while stumping for the Democratic presidential nomination in Iowa City, Biden said the following while answering a voter’s question about negative campaigning:
“Let me tell you a little story,” Mr. Biden told the crowd at the University of Iowa. “I got elected when I was 29, and I got elected November the 7th. And on Dec. 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.”
The accident took place at the intersection of Limestone and Valley Road in Hockessin, Delaware. At the time, it was a remote, rural section of New Castle County, described as follows by a probationary volunteer fireman who responded to the scene and attended the driver of the tractor-trailer:
Limestone Road was a popular trucker shortcut in the Piedmont foothills leading from Delaware into Pennsylvania. The intersection with Valley Road was extremely dangerous, located at the bottom of two steep hills. Truckers traveling in either direction used the momentum coming down one hill, in order to climb the other. The speed limit on Limestone Road, at the intersection, was 35mph and huge REDUCE SPEED signs were posted a half-mile in both directions. Whether Curtis Dunn was speeding is unknown, but he had applied his brakes, which was apparent from twin 150 ft. skid marks.
But as Politico noted in a 2009 profile of Biden, the other driver was not charged with drunken driving, or anything else that would indicate fault on his part. Based on evidence and witness accounts, it appeared that Neilia Biden had pulled into the truck driver’s right of way at an intersection with a two-way stop, and the tractor-trailer driver was unable to stop in time to avoid striking her vehicle:
The driver of the truck, Curtis C. Dunn of Pennsylvania, was not charged with drunk driving. He wasn’t charged with anything. The accident was an accident, and though the police file no longer exists, coverage in the newspapers at the time made it clear that fault was not in question. For whatever reason, Neilia Biden, who was holding the baby, ended up in the right of way of Dunn’s truck coming down a long hill.
“She had a stop sign. The truck driver did not,” Jerome Herlihy told me. He’s a retired judge who then was a deputy attorney general and once was a neighbor to Biden and remains friendly. A pal of Biden at the time asked Herlihy “to go out to the state police troop where the driver of the other vehicle was to make sure everything was going all right,” and so he did. “In the end,” Herlihy said, “I concurred in their decision that there was no fault on his part.”
Does this mean Biden was untruthful — even lying, perhaps — when he implied that Dunn had been drinking? According to Lou Angeli, the fireman referenced above who treated Dunn at the scene, observed, no evidence definitively establishes or disproves that point:
In regards to intoxication, there was no way to determine if Mr. Dunn had been drinking, since neither of the police officers had breathalyzers aboard their cruisers. His injuries were such that his demeanor was similar to that of someone in a stupor, but those of you who serve in emergency medicine know that such behavior is often presented by victims who are in shock, or perhaps even diabetic.
I’ve learned that all of the records pertaining to this accident are lost. It doesn’t surprise me. Back then our ambulance incident report was filled out on a 5×7 card and filed away in a box. Once a month the information was transferred to a master list, which was later placed in storage.
If Mr. Dunn was intoxicated, there was no way to determine that at the hospital either, since alcohol blood tests were not mandatory in 1972. The hospital records are missing, as well as the police reports.
Angeli asserted that this alleged aspect of the accident wasn’t a “lie” Biden simply made up out of whole cloth, and that right or wrong, rumor and belief that drinking had contributed to the crash was prevalent among the local community:
To be honest, those of us in fire-rescue here in Delaware assumed that Mr. Dunn had been drinking, based on comments made by police officers at the scene. And in the Delaware fire service, rumors travel from station to station like wildfire.
Until he remarried in 1977, whenever Joe Biden attended a public safety event, parade or spoke during a firehouse banquet, police officers and firefighters would approach him and discuss the accident and the tragedy of his wife Neilia and daughter Naomi falling victim to a drunken driver. Imagine how those discussions must have affected the young Senator.
Either way, we didn’t turn up any instances of Biden’s having publicly raised the issue in the last 13 years, and Biden has since apologized to Dunn’s daughter, while his spokesman declared that Biden now “fully accepts the Dunn family’s word that these rumors were false”:
Biden called [Dunn’s daughter Pam Hamill], she told me. “He apologized for hurting my family in any way,” she said. “So we accepted that — and kind of end of story from there.” She sounded tired, and tired of talking about this.
Maybe [Biden] was merely passing along rumors he had heard from investigators and others. A now-dead emergency worker who was on the scene that day suggested as much …
Or maybe Biden was engaging in what grief expert Rob Zucker described to me as “a retelling of the horror.” It’s something people sometimes do, he said, tweaking facts, shifting blame, if nothing else to make the grief more “palatable.”
“It’s a common challenge bereaved parents in particular struggle with after a sudden, violent death. I think the fact that he has this way of sometimes understanding the story is really an expression of the challenge for any person to go forward in their lives,” Zucker added.