ROCKVILLE, Md. - Maryland State Police say two off-duty law enforcement officers died last night after they were struck while standing on the shoulder of I-270 in Rockville.
According to their preliminary investigation, Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Sander Cohen, 33, of the Office of the State Fire Marshal, also a lieutenant with the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department, called the Maryland State Police Rockville Barrack to report that he was out with what appeared to be a single-vehicle crash in the fast lane of southbound I-270, north of Gude Drive.
He saw that an SUV was damaged and pulled over in the traffic portion of the highway.
Police say Deputy Chief Cohen requested assistance from the barrack and blocked the area to the damaged car with his personal vehicle and activated his emergency flashers.
Police say his actions placed him in an official capacity at that time.
The driver of the damaged car, according to police, was Supervisory Special Agent Carlos Wolff, 36, of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Both men moved to the shoulder of the fast lane where they were standing when a Honda approached the scene.
Police say that car swerved to the left and hit both men on the shoulder, throwing them over the jersey wall to the northbound side of I-270.
Officers believe at least one of the men was struck by an Acura in the northbound lanes.
Police say Deputy Chief Cohen was pronounced dead at the scene. Special Agent Wolff was taken to a local
hospital where he died from his injuries.
The Honda that struck the victims is identified as Roberto Palacios, 28, of Germantown. He had two other passengers in his car, and all three were taken to local hospitals.
The driver of the Acura did not report being injured.
Police say Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Sander Cohen was a decorated fire marshal repeatedly recognized for his outstanding service.
He had been a member of the Office of the State Fire Marshal for nine years. Police say in January of this year, he was appointed Regional Commander of the Northern Regional Office. He was responsible for supervising fire investigations in Carroll, Harford, and Cecil counties.
He was also an active member with the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department, Station 3, since 2003.
“Deputy Chief Cohen had no idea who was inside the vehicle he stopped behind,” Maryland State Police Superintendent Colonel William Pallozzi said. “He just recognized that someone needed help and he never hesitated last night to stop and help someone in need. Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Sander Cohen has now joined the ranks of Maryland’s Fallen Heroes.”
"Sander’s going to be known for helping people, all the way up until the very last call that he ran," says Rockville Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jim Vagonis.
Chief Vagonis says he has two Chief Officers assigned to staying with Deputy Chief Cohen's parents.
He also has crisis management teams in the firehouse to help them cope, including those who responded to the horrifying scene on Friday night.
Police say the cause of the initial crash involving Special Agent Wolff’s vehicle remains under investigation. For reason still unknown, police believe that his car hit the concrete barrier on the left side of the highway.
Police do not believe alcohol was a cause in any of the three crashes, and the causes of all three crashes are under investigation by the Maryland State Police Crash Team.
After they complete the investigation, it will be presented to the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office for review
No charges have been filed at this time.
Police cruisers and fire apparatus escorted Deputy Chief Cohen's body from the Medical Examiner's Office in Baltimore to a funeral home in Rockville on Saturday night.
They passed by the fire department, so they could join the procession.
"Sander died doing what he loved to do, and that was help people," says Chief Vagonis. "We will always remember him and we will always, do right by Sander Cohen, that’s what we do here in the fire department, we never forget."