The dead boy lies among the folds of blue satin in the box at one end of the room. His long reddish hair and clipped goatee are framed by handwritten notes of farewell, two packs of Marlboros and a can of Mountain Dew.
Will Zimmardi, not yet 18, had been struck by a car while trying to walk across 10 lanes of heavy traffic on Sunrise Highway in Bay Shore. The accident happened November 9, nearly a year to the day after 13-year-old Mary Bennett was run over on the same stretch of road while she hurried home on foot from the mall.
Clutching copies of the newspaper, mourners at Davin’s Funeral Home in Mastic stand outside the visiting room and whisper about the spate of pedestrians recently killed on Long Island roads. In early November, Zimmardi wasn’t the only one. Four elderly people were struck and killed while crossing streets, walking back to their cars or, like 77-year-old Donald Murray of Huntington Station, just stepping around the corner to mail some letters.
People around Zimmardi’s age had been hit, too. A 16-year-old boy skating in East Meadow had been critically injured on Salisbury Park Drive. Ernest Alicea, 15, had walked only three doors down from his Brentwood home when he was killed crossing Fulton Street. “That’s three kids this week,” says one man in the funeral parlor, shaking his head at the news.
Islanders have had to get used to reading reports of people mowed over by automobiles. For walkers and bicyclists, Nassau and Suffolk counties are two of the most dangerous places in the country. In the seven years from 1992 through 1998, more than 7,400 pedestrians were struck in Nassau alone—a rate of nearly three a day. The situation in Suffolk was even worse, with so many people crushed under wheels that the county was nearly three times as deadly to pedestrians as suburban Los Angeles, and nearly five times as fatal as any borough of New York City.
Forced to compete with a torrent of automobiles on wide, straight streets with few crosswalks and poorly timed lights, Islanders are killed on their morning constitutionals, on the way to school, coming back from the store or hustling home from work. “If I knew you needed a ride,” wrote Zimmardi’s uncle on a card in the visiting room, “we would have picked you up.”
On the Island, sooner or later you’ll face the prospect of dashing across one of the four-lane roads that slice through the centers of villages. And sooner or later, someone you know—maybe even you—won’t make it to the other side, or will end up as the driver who has a kid appear out of nowhere and bounce off your windshield.
In the funeral home, Bruce Fogel of North Babylon sits down near Zimmardi’s father and tells how he lost his own son two years ago near the divide of Route 231 and Deer Park Avenue. Michael Fogel was in the crosswalk on his bicycle, heading to his summer job, when he was struck by a morning commuter. The Fogels buried their son on what would have been his 17th birthday.
Shoulders slumped, Fogel talks in a quiet, even voice about the tree planted by Michael’s fellow students in his memory and the football concession stand they dedicated to him. He raises a slender hand toward Will’s casket. Memorials are “all well and good,” he says. “But the bottom line is, when you go home at night, you’re never going to see his grandchildren.”
DEATH BY SUBDIVISION
The planner who was supposed to steer Long Island toward building livable communities has watched for 35 years as people instead turned their counties into deathtraps.
Lee Koppleman, director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board, says he tried haranguing the towns of Suffolk, in particular, into adding lanes for bikers and walkers whenever they widened roads. But the farther east people built their homes, the more they insisted on keeping out any signs of city life. Sidewalks, crosswalks, public transit and pedestrian signals belonged in boroughs, the suburbanites insisted, not in hamlets.
In 1975, Koppleman got a $100,000 grant that towns could use to make streets safer for pedestrians. “It was hard even to spend that,” he says. “The local communities don’t want the urbanization. It’s foolish.”
Years later, those communities woke up to realize they’d created a sprawling version of the asphalt-covered city they’d tried so hard to escape. Rather than towering apartment complexes linked by subways and generous sidewalks, they’d constructed mile after mile of strip malls and ranch houses, linked by high-traffic streets so wide and so straight that speed limits of 35 miles per hour appear to motorists not as the law, but as a suggestion.
The former city dwellers may have lessened their chances of being shot by a mugger, but they have vastly increased the odds of being flattened by a delivery truck. In Middle Island, junior high school teacher Connie Kepert has mourned more than one young student who met death trying to cross local roads. “People came to the suburbs because they thought it was going to be a safer place to raise their children,” says Kepert, president of the Middle Island Civic Association. “Meanwhile, more children die from getting hit by cars than are killed by gunfire. People don’t realize that.”
Raw tallies of pedestrian fatalities on the Island are impressively grim, but they paint only part of the picture. Body counts kept by the Nassau County Traffic Safety Board show that 113 walkers and bicyclists were killed by cars from 1995 to 1998, placing the county among the top 10 most dangerous in the state. During the same period, 124 walkers and bicyclists died in Suffolk, putting that county also high on the list, but lower than the boroughs.
Yet to really understand the level of risk, say advocates of alternative transportation, you have to consider how few Island residents regularly walk anyplace.
Analysts at the Surface Transportation Policy Project, in Washington, D.C., use U.S. Census figures to compare the percentage of people who commute on foot with the number of pedestrians killed. In Manhattan, nearly a quarter of the residents walk to work, so even though dozens lose their lives in traffic each year, the borough has a danger index of just 12 out of 100. By the same calculation, the Bronx rings in at 20, Brooklyn at 35 and Queens at 38.
But in Nassau, only 3.4 percent of the population walks to work, yet people still die in droves, earning the county a danger rating of 72, nearly twice that of neighboring Queens. In spread-out Suffolk, just 2.1 percent of all residents walk to their jobs—giving that county an off-the-chart danger rate of 141.
It’s no wonder Islanders prefer traveling in cars to walking. Roads here are designed to keep traffic moving, so crosswalks on some major streets are a mile apart, and pedestrian signals take up to 100 seconds just to acknowledge someone pushed the button.
Conditions like those all but force people to jaywalk, even on major thoroughfares like Hempstead Turnpike. Robert Lemoine, 60, was killed there in October after being struck by three cars while trying to cross. Michael Fortunato, 11, died in July when he cut across the highway on his way home from swimming. In June, Vivian Correa, 22, was fatally struck in the eastbound lanes as she walked to catch a bus for a shopping trip. Mark Kibak, 47, lost his life on the turnpike, crossing near Hamlet Road in Levittown last year, as did Frank Battaglia, 83, in Farmingdale. A decade ago, Raju Sethi, 31, made it halfway across and was standing in the median when two cars collided with such force that one left the roadway and wiped him out.
When Nassau officials talk about people getting killed, they point to mistakes made by walkers and cite statistics showing one-third of fatalities happen when someone darts into traffic. But with intersections a half-mile or more apart, says Jon Orcutt of the Tri-State Tranportation Campaign, pedestrians have little choice. In exchange for being able to move hundreds of thousands of cars around the Island, he says, we have accepted that people like Robert Lemoine and Vivian Correa and Michael Fortunato will die.
“People call them accidents, instead of looking at it as a systematic feature of the transportation system,” Orcutt says. “It’s not an accident. You know it’s going to happen.”
DEATH BY AFFLUENCE
Connie Kepert’s nightmare looms just down the road in Selden, a Brookhaven community carved in half by the five lanes of Route 25. Strip malls there have replaced local shops, and many walkers and bicyclists have given up contending with shoulders that disappear without warning and crosswalks that take 10 minutes to reach on foot.
Wherever Route 25 has been expanded, the landscape is a danger zone. In November, Mauricio Soto, 34, died in Huntington Station beneath the wheels of a driver who said she never saw him. In August, an Asian man in his 20s died in Selden, caught halfway across. Joseph Bonanni, 67, was killed crossing there two years ago.
For years, state engineers have considered widening Route 25 east of Selden, and for years, Kepert has captained a sometimes lonely effort to stop them.
Keeping roads walkable hasn’t been a top priority on an island where the number of cars has grown almost nine times faster than the number of people. Content in their woodsy suburbs, a lot of middle-class homeowners don’t buy into Kepert’s vision of slow, narrow streets with curves and crosswalks and trees that buffer sidewalks. Some in Middle Island don’t want sidewalks at all. “Many, many people object to that,” she says. “They want what they have in Selden.”
State Department of Transportation spokeswoman Eileen Peters calls her agency’s plans for widening Route 25 a “safety project.” Peters, based in Hauppauge, admits to being a bit surprised at the objection of Kepert and others to adding traffic lanes. In all its projects for the past five years, Peters says, the department has improved the situation for walkers and cyclists—and engineers intend to do the same on the five miles between Middle Island and Coram.
“We do whatever we can to give the community something they’re happy with,” Peters says. “They deserve nothing less.”
Those words do little to soothe Islanders who’ve watched the death toll mount as state roads like Sunrise Highway were widened. After Mary Bennett was killed there last year, the DOT cordoned off the median in front of the South Bay Shore Mall with a fence that’s hard to climb. Yet Will Zimmardi ignored a nearby underpass and died while crossing a quarter-mile from where the barrier ends. The flimsy wire that guards the rest of the highway is bowed and twisted from all the people who’ve attempted the crossing despite the danger.
Not all of them reached the other side. In 1988, Bernard Hudesman, 59, escaped with a broken leg when he was struck while walking across Sunrise in Rockville Centre. The next year, Danielle Bjurnstad, 15, was killed crossing in Shirley. In 1990, Candido Lopez, 27, died in Freeport, and Matthew Horan, 32, died in Lindenhurst nine months later. In 1991, Frederick Behan, 40, died after being slammed by two cars in the westbound express lanes in Bay Shore, not far from where, four years later, Robert Conway Jr., 65, was fatally struck when his car broke down and he went to look for help. Last year, Victor Marans, 76, made it less than halfway across before he was killed in Rockville Centre.
Just as Sunrise Highway in Bay Shore separates a shopping center from a school and quiet residential streets, so Route 25 in Middle Island separates neighborhoods from a park. Bicycle advocate Russell Ainbinder of Brookhaven says he’s hopeful the DOT will engineer the widening in Middle Island safely, but he worries about what could happen if the agency fails and kids get killed when, inevitably, they head out to play.
“At some point in the future, you have a certain number of deaths and people will say it’s dangerous and we have to take down the park,” Ainbinder says. “Then you lose the park, not because of the town or the community, but because of a piece of asphalt.”
DEATH BY POVERTY
The man in the knit hat stands in front of the Wyandanch train station with his arms crossed, scanning the length of Straight Path.
With four lanes, few crosswalks and a generally ignored speed limit of 35 miles per hour, the road may be the most dangerous in Suffolk. Identifying himself only as Sabu, the man watches as the people of his largely poor, African-American hometown pick their way through the tangled intersection, crossing from laundromat to fast-food place to rundown strip mall with few crosswalks and no pedestrian signals. They step gingerly between heavy trucks and pause precariously on the double yellow line in the center of the street, waiting for traffic on the other side to clear.
For the people who live near it, Straight Path has become a killing field. Donald Walker, 38, was struck as he rode a bicycle along the street in March. Last December, Dorothy Finley-Armstrong, 50, was struck and dragged 250 feet as she walked home from the store. In December 1996, Calvin Finney, 37, was hit by two cars. Two years earlier, Huesie Walker, 56, was run over while crossing Straight Path, just four months after cyclist Lorenzo Birt, 25, was killed. The line of victims extends for more than a decade, and includes Tyrone Turner, 38, who stumbled into the path of a car in 1986.
For Sabu, the deaths are a matter of social justice. Wyandanch has too many liquor stores and pawn shops and drug dealers that prey on the black community, he says, and it has too many blood stains on the pavement. “If this was a white neighborhood,” he says, “you know the type of traffic precautions that would be made. It’s not about human beings. It’s about money.”
Community leaders in Wyandanch, part of the Town of Babylon, have long tried to get something done about Straight Path. Designed like a drag strip between Sunrise Highway and the Southern State Parkway, it has become an unofficial freeway for commercial truckers and commuting drivers hoping to shave a few minutes off their journeys.
The Rev. Henry Bacon has buried nearly a dozen people killed on Straight Path. The leader of Wyandanch’s Compel Community Action Church wants the street’s crosswalks repainted and its lighting improved. He wants officials to crack down on speeding and hook up pedestrian signals. He estimates that fixing the street will require $3 million and the cooperation of federal, state, county and town officials. After all, the road belongs to Suffolk, but it intersects town streets, links state highways and almost reaches the federally funded Long Island Expressway.
“All of the factions must be real,” Bacon says. “You must find the money when the lives of our people are at stake.”
Like other minority communities on the Island, Wyandanch has suffered from governmental indifference. In the Village of Hempstead, some bus stops are situated opposite elderly or handicapped housing with no crosswalk in sight. “I don’t know if they think it’s a demolition derby,” says Renée Baturin, who lives on Jerusalem Avenue and uses a wheelchair. “It makes it harder for the disabled, because we can’t cross as fast.”
In Wyandanch, homes don’t even have sewer service yet, let alone a central street where people feel safe walking to the corner grocery. Suffolk’s chief engineer, Richard LaValle, has been meeting with Weed and Seed, a local civic group, to talk about ways to upgrade Straight Path. LaValle says he’s hopeful the county can redesign the road to have only two lanes in the village center, but he cautions that constricting traffic and removing on-street parking could discourage customers and shopkeepers from doing business there. “People say we want to slow people down, but the people in Wyandanch also want to develop a downtown area,” he says. “If you want to create a downtown area, you want to make sure people can enter and leave.”
While Suffolk officials debate proposed improvements, the African-American newspaper Point of View is shining a bright and steady light on the dangers of Straight Path—and the community of Wyandanch is growing impatient. There’s even talk of shutting down the street at rush hour next summer if things don’t get better.
Bacon stops short of calling for a full-fledged protest, but he insists that the situation on Straight Path is an issue of fairness. How can he teach children they’re equal, he asks, when their families are getting run over like dogs in the street? “I’m dealing with kids who are saying, ‘Why isn’t Mommy or Daddy coming home?’ Or someone who’s just getting their life together, and then they’re no longer around.”
DEATH BY DELAY
Even when the money for sidewalks and bike lanes is on the table, there’s no guarantee a town will spend it.
Two years ago, Brookhaven’s Citizens Bicycle Advisory Board, led by Connie Kepert and Russell Ainbinder, won a federal grant of $750,000 to designate cycling routes that would complement a path belonging to the county. Though the necessary shoulders already exist, the town’s signs and striping haven’t yet gone in because homeowners along certain roads think they will slow automobiles.
While the bike board looks for alternate routes, cyclists compete with pounding traffic, and sometimes they lose. In November, Kenneth Ahlgren, 74, was killed by a car in Brookhaven as he pedaled across William Floyd Parkway, not two miles from a proposed town bike route. Children and grandparents “are the people we’re sacrificing to make the traffic go faster,” Kepert says. “Nobody wants to hear that, but that’s what we’re doing.”
But the message may finally be getting through, even in places like the auto-centric state Department of Transportation. Spokeswoman Eileen Peters says planners there are beginning to take into account the effect that highways like the Southern State have on communities. “The big gap is while our state roads were getting safer,” Peters says, “there were all these local roads where no funding was available.”
Now the department intends to spend some $3 million islandwide on local roads. It also plans to design 400 miles of bike routes over the next 10 years.
Those investments may save lives, but they’ll do little to reverse the decades-long, deadly course of policy that built roads like Sunrise Highway and Route 25. A bike lane here and crosswalk there won’t stop the bodies from piling up.
“The way we designed our roadways is really what’s causing all these pedestrian accidents,” Kepert says. “Hopefully, we can turn it around. I just hope we turn it around before they destroy my community.”
among the dead…
Julio Manzanares, 34, New York Avenue, Huntington
Mauricio Soto, 34, Jericho Turnpike, Huntington
Donald Walker, 38, Straight Path, Wyandanch
Dorothy Finley-Armstrong, 50, Straight Path, Wyandanch
Calvin Finney, 37, Straight Path, Wyandanch
Huesie Walker, 56, Straight Path, Wyandanch
Deboral Lenane, 33, Northern Boulevard, Lake Success
Ernest Alicea, 15, Fulton Street, Brentwood
Stephen Ferro, 15, Centre Avenue, Bellmore
Vivian Correa, 22, Hempstead Turnpike, Levittown
Michael Fortunato, 11, Hempstead Turnpike, Levittown
Robert Lemoine, 60, Hempstead Turnpike, Elmont
Mark Kibak, 47, Hempstead Turnpike, Levittown
Raju Sethi, 31, Hempstead Turnpike, Bethpage
Enrique Laupper, 76, North Corona Avenue, North Valley Stream
Michael Fogel, 16, Route 231, North Babylon
Edward McLaughlin, 45, Neighborhood Road, Mastic Beach
Lillian Greenfader, 73, Jerusalem Avenue, Massapequa
Erin Quinn, 21, Fifth Avenue, Bay Shore
Mary Bennett, 13, Sunrise Highway, Bay Shore
Will Zimmardi, 17, Sunrise Highway, Bay Shore
Jose Fernandez, 29, Sunrise Highway, Freeport
Frederick Behan, 40, Sunrise Highway, Bay Shore
Robert Fiore, 40, Route 109, Farmingdale
Roma Carman, 34, County Road 83, Farmingville
Jerry Castleberry, 57, Route 112, Patchogue
Miguel Yanez, 32, Fulton Avenue, Hempstead
Tiffane Walker, 17, Montauk Highway, Southampton
Christopher Jacobson, 18, Montauk Highway, Bayport Jozef Szurko, 51, North Sea Road, Southampton
Ethel Croninger, 70, Route 110, North Amityville
Kevin Cafferty, 23, Grand Avenue, Baldwin
Katie Walston, 49, Osborn Avenue, Riverhead
THE GRIEF OF ONE VICTIM’S FAMILY
Michael Fogel’s mother still wonders why she felt no hint of the danger that awaited her son when he left their North Babylon home that morning, bicycling to his summer job. “I’ll see you later, Mom,” she remembers him saying.
But Anna Fogel would never see the boy again, at least not alive. As he rode through the crosswalk near the divide of Route 231 and Deer Park Avenue, he was struck by morning commuter Kelly O’Brien, then 20. The autopsy showed that Michael, 16, broke his neck and died instantly.
Two years after burying her son, Anna Fogel says the pain has only increased. She doesn’t have much advice for people who lose family or friends on Long Island streets. “Half the time, I don’t know what to say, because there’s nothing to say,” she says. “The hole gets bigger as time goes on. It doesn’t get smaller. Because things happen that you say, ‘He would have enjoyed doing this.’ ”
Michael’s family describes him as a stout kid with a gentle manner, an eclectic mix of friends and a tenacious spirit. Despite serious learning disabilities, Michael did well in school and was independent-minded. He was a white student who chose black teachers for mentors, joined a PTA chapter as its sole youth member and made plans to attend Hofstra University. His artwork and photographs of him building houses with Habitat for Humanity hang on a wall above the kitchen table in the Fogels’ modest home. The week he was killed, Michael was preparing to leave for a month-long stint of constructing homes for the poor in Appalachia.
A few weeks after the accident, road workers repainted the crosswalk where Michael died, but the intersection is still dangerous. Like many other busy streets on Long Island, Route 231 and Deer Park Avenue send cars zipping through neighborhoods and past schools and libraries. A crosswalk is situated a few feet beyond the traffic light where the two roads intersect. The police report said Michael was slammed as the drivers’ signal showed green.
After Michael’s death, the family considered suing over the design of the intersection, but a lawyer advised them it was up to code. Instead, they’re suing O’Brien, whom police didn’t charge in the incident. New York law isn’t in the Fogels’ favor, because courts typically award scant damages for the loss of a young person who suffered little before dying.
Bruce Fogel says he knows the value of his son’s life can’t be measured in dollars, but he wants someone to pay for what’s been done to his family. “It’s like you take those papers you just wrote, crumple them up and throw them in the garbage,” he says. “That’s it. He’s gone. All the imprinting that you do on the child, all the positive things you give them—gone.”
When the police showed up at the family’s home in the early afternoon, after taking hours to make a positive identification of the body, the first thing Michael’s younger brother asked was how he could be expected to grow up without Michael. Now in sixth grade, an only child with dark hair and round cheeks, Peter has begun to look like the brother he lost. Some of his classmates never let him forget it. “In fourth grade, they were asking me about my brother being dead,” Peter says. “I would ignore them because I didn’t want to talk about it. In fifth grade, it was the same questions. This year at homecoming, the same thing.”
The Fogels view Long Island roads differently now. Anna Fogel says she cringes when she sees a bicyclist while she’s driving.
Every Wednesday, Bruce Fogel’s work as an orthotist takes him to the Nassau County Medical Center, where he picks his way across the six lanes of Hempstead Turnpike, determined not to become the next pedestrian struck there. And every Wednesday, he says, he waits as long as it takes for the traffic to clear. “When I get to the other side,” he says, lifting his arms toward heaven in an ancient gesture, “I always say, ‘Michael, what was so hard about that?’ ” —LC
…and the agony of the person who hit him
Kelly O’Brien of Deer Park studied to be a respiratory therapist because she wanted to help victims of accidents and disease get back on their feet. But the first time she was faced with a child who’d been run over, she nearly quit her profession.
The summer before, in 1997, O’Brien had struck and killed Michael Fogel, a young cyclist in North Babylon. That fall, she entered a round of training in the pediatric ward. “I almost gave it up,” she says. “The first couple of times I had a kid hit by a car, I couldn’t handle it.”
Like a lot of other drivers who hit pedestrians or bicyclists on Long Island, O’Brien wasn’t found in violation of the law. She was heading to a summer job in the medical records department of a hospital when she caught a glimpse of Fogel, 16, cycling through the crosswalk. Witnesses said she had a green light.
O’Brien swerved, but couldn’t avoid a collision. She remembers a tremendous thud, followed by the sound of shattering glass. Her medical training took over. She jumped out of the car, knelt over the boy and checked his pulse. His heart had stopped and his eyes were closed. “I just kept thinking, ‘What if this was my brother?” she says. “People had to pull me away. I freaked.”
For weeks after the accident, O’Brien says, she refused to leave her house. She couldn’t eat and she couldn’t sleep. When she finally started driving again, her hands would redden from gripping the steering wheel too hard and her heart would pound so fast she thought she might go into cardiac arrest. Nearly three years and countless hours of therapy later, she still thinks about Fogel every day. “I can hear all the sounds in my head,” she says. “You’re never going to forget it.”
O’Brien, a Catholic, sent Michael Fogel’s family a Mass card not long after the accident. They returned it with a note that read, “How dare you?” They’re suing her, and sometime next spring O’Brien expects to meet the Fogels, for the first time, in court.
“I don’t know if they’re going to attack me or freak out at me,” she says. “The only thing I’m hoping to come out of the court case is his family will see me and meet me.”
When she reads reports of people getting run over, O’Brien sympathizes with the loved ones of the pedestrian, but her heart goes out to the motorist, too. “It’s very, very traumatic,” she says. “I always feel bad for the driver as well as the family. Sometimes I just want to call them and tell them everything will be OK—eventually.” —LC