Diners saved as soldier, Punxsy Phil girders stop brakeless Stryker

PUNXSUTAWNEY — It can be said that the groundhog — and a soldier — saved the day.

A potential tragedy was averted Thursday when one of the National Guard’s IAV Stryker all-terrain vehicles lost its brakes while traveling down Indiana Hill.

But instead of crashing through the ramp toward a restaurant full of people at Joe’s Drive-In, a steel girder supporting the huge wooden groundhog located at the edge of the parking lot stopped the vehicle’s forward progress.

“A special thanks goes to my dad, Joe Sikora Sr., who had the steel beams buried deep in the ground,” said Joe Sikora Jr., who owns the drive-in and the groundhog.

“We always asked him why he built things so sturdy,” he said. “Now I know why.”

According a report filed by Punxsutawney Borough Police Officer Ryan Miller, the 2006 Stryker all-terrain vehicle — operated by Private P. Ricey, 32, of Meadville — was traveling in a northbound convoy
along Route 119/Indiana Hill, en route to the National Guard 856 Engineer Company along North Findley Street, around 12:29 p.m. Thursday.

When the braking system on the Stryker failed, Ricey guided the vehicle onto the gravel runaway truck ramp, police said. But the vehicle continued traveling on the ramp, striking three raised gravel mounds and sand-filled plastic barrels located at the end of the ramp, police said.

The Stryker continued traveling off the ramp, then came to a rest after striking the steel girder that supports the Punxsutawney Phil cut-out at the end of the parking lot, police said.

Police said Ricey and a passenger, SSG. A. Kural, 32, Punxsy, were transported to Punxsutawney Area Hospital via Jefferson County EMS for treatment of unknown injuries.

The younger Sikora called Ricey a hero because he was able to get the vehicle stopped when it struck the steel beam that supported the wooden groundhog.

“I was out in the parking lot working on the forklift when this large dust cloud came through, followed by the loud noise that the Stryker made when it struck the steel beam,” he said.

At the time of the crash, there were about 20 people eating lunch inside the drive-in, Sikora said.

Police also said had the steel girder not stopped the Stryker, it probably would have gone through the restaurant and not stopped until it entered Mahoning Creek.

The groundhog in the Joe’s lot is not original; Sikora said it was refurbished about two years ago for about $8,400.

According to the U.S. Military Vehicles Web site, the IAV Stryker is an eight-wheeled, four-wheel drive armored fighting transport vehicle that has been utilized in the Middle East. It weighs approximately 22 tons and is valued at $4 million fully equipped.

Police said a Hewtt military wrecker was summoned from Johnstown to tow the crashed Stryker, which sustained disabling damage.

Police were assisted at the scene by Punxsy-based Pennsylvania State Police, PennDOT, Jefferson County EMS, the Punxsutawney Fire Department the National Guard Armory.