PORTLAND (AP) – The grandmother of the woman police believe was driving when a rented Ford Explorer crashed and killed seven people believes there must have been a medical emergency for her to drive so recklessly.

Arlene Stuart says she suspects it may have been her great grandson Deion Stuart, who suffers form severe asthma.

The boy’s asthma was acting up the day before Sunday’s crash, Stuart said. And a neighbor and friend of driver Hope Stuart Gagnon said he was surprised to see her son’s asthma kit left behind in their apartment.

“I want people to know there must have been a reason for her driving like that,” Arlene Gagnon said Wednesday.

Troopers say Hope Gagnon, 29, was driving in excess of 90 mph when she swerved into the breakdown lane to pass two cars that were side by side in the travel and passing lanes on Interstate 95 in Carmel.

Gagnon, her son Deion and two other children were killed. Also killed were Kelley Armstrong, 28, her 4-year-old son and another woman, Danielle St. Pauline, 29. All three women were from South Portland.

One motorist saw Armstrong, who was wearing a red warm-up suit, switching into the passenger’s side of the Explorer, which put Gagnon in the driver’s seat two miles before the crash, Trooper Joshua D’Angelo said.

Arlene Stuart said the medical emergency theory makes sense to her.

Deion Stuart had been hospitalized as an infant for his asthma and the day before the crash had been at Arlene Stuart’s house and had to come inside because his asthma was acting up. Arlene Stuart said a crowded car would have aggravated the problem.

“I know without a doubt there was a problem. She felt she had to do that. I don’t know it official but I feel it in my heart,” Stuart said.

Police said there was nothing to indicate whether there had been a medical emergency. There was no autopsy performed on any of the occupants. Funerals were scheduled Friday in Portland and Yarmouth.

The families and friends of the victims weren’t the only ones suffering after Sunday’s tragedy. The crash also hit emergency responders hard.

Emergency workers arrived to a horrific scene: the crumpled bodies of three adults and four children that remain seared in their memory.

Walter Gibbons, Etna’s 31-year old fire chief, was crestfallen when the SUV was lifted, revealing the bodies of two young children. His immediate thought was whether lives could have been saved if he moved faster.

The SUV had been wedged between trees, and firefighters had to use chain saws to free the vehicle so it could be moved. Hours had passed by the time a tow truck lifted the SUV upright, revealing the bodies of two children.

Gibbons initially feared that the delay had cost the children their lives.

“When I did remove the bodies of the victims it was obvious there was nothing I could have done,” he said. “That was in itself a little bit relieving. It wasn’t anything close to touching the surface of making me feel better.”

The firefighters, police, medical personnel and tow truck operator met Tuesday night at the Carmel Fire Station to talk about the psychological impact of seeing such carnage, and to seek some measure of peace.

“Every time I talk about it I’m back on Interstate 95. But if I don’t talk about it,” Gibbons said, “that would be worse.”

Authorities released the wreckage of the 2004 Ford Explorer to the rental company on Wednesday after failing to determine where it was headed and why it was being driven in excess of 90 mph.

Police said they will wait until after the funerals to interview family members to try to learn the women’s destination and any other details that might shed light on the crash.

Police did say that after interviewing emergency responders it now appears at least three of the children were wearing seat belts. D’Angelo said investigators will never know if Ariana Stuart, who was thrown from the car, was unbelted or was too small for the belt to work.

“In my opinion, I don’t feel there was anything that could have been done. I don’t feel seat belts made a difference,” he said.

AP-ES-05-13-04 1331EDT

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