Fatal accident, Hempstead Turnpike, Levittown NY
April 3, 2012, 9:15pm

     I had a direct view of the accident that killed Anthony D'Alessandro, age 16. I was eastbound in the long left-turn lane, slowing down to wait for the light and then turn left onto Division Avenue. The sump and then the new 7Eleven were ahead and to my left; I had just gone past the Library park on my right. (I hadn't looked in that direction.)
    He was standing ahead of me and to my left, on the familiar concrete median, holding a cell phone to his ear with one hand, and a can of beer (unseen by me) in in his left hand. He was apparently in the process of crossing northbound, having already crossed the eastbound 3 lanes, waiting to cross the westbound 3 lanes. He was standing close to the westbound side, as if impatient, and talking into the phone. He really caught my attention when he started to cross the westbound side, casually walking into the westbound left lane, phone still on his ear. Something was not quite right. He didn't really look. Maybe he forgot where he was, and looked left instead of looking right. [I have crossed there many times, on foot and on a bicycle, solo and with a sidekick.] Automatically, I looked ahead of him, as if I were in his shoes or alongside him, to make sure the westbound lane was really clear. Unfortunately, it wasn't. I saw the westbound vehicle coming toward him, with just enough time for me to realize that he would be shattered in the next instant, and that I was about to see it all. There was no chance of intervention. [The world does not have a Pause or Rewind button. No miracle this time.] He probably never saw it coming. But I did. He got about 3 steps out from the curb. It was one very intense second. I felt embarrassed for him, that his one small mistake, in that unfortunate moment, just became the worst possible mistake, with the unthinkable consequence, Impact. (And the agony, dismemberment, paralysis, brain damage, lifelong suffering, death and oblivion that follow.) I even thought WHY HERE, WHY NOW? why did life make ME see this so closely? These thoughts came all at once. I barely finished saying "Oh, God...", when he was hit. It is an uncommon sound. Kind of a splat, as multiple lighter objects impact the various surfaces and break or go flying; all overwhelmed by drowned out by one huge deep BAM! from the full force of the impact
    He folded over onto the hood of the car and, in that bent position, was carried several feet, floated off the hood of the already decelerating car, flew many feet, landed, and rolled several more feet to a stop, about 81 feet in total. He came to rest with his head on the beveled median curb, right cheek down, chest on the pavement, body nearly straight, extending perpendicular out into the left lane. [The impact was unavoidable, coming about 1 second after he stepped into the lane; barely enough time for anyone to lift a foot off a gas pedal, much less stop or swerve into the other two busy traffic lanes or the median. Having walked about 3 steps from the curb, he impacted right of center on the minivan.] About one second after the impact, as my car rolled to a stop, I was shocked again by a loud SPLAT on my windshield. At first I thought "what's that, brains??", but it was clear fluid, which didn't make sense. Couldn't be spit. I stopped and got out of the car, but there was nothing to do. Two people were already talking to 911; people were gathering and not trying to move him while waiting the five minutes for the ambulance. Bystanders said the boy was on the cell phone, and "he was drunk". After such a major impact, he was hardly bleeding at all. There was just a little blood from his nose or face. Accidents aren't especially bloody. He didn't splatter like a watermelon. Impact damage is mostly internal - bones and joints, organs, spine, and brain. He was still alive and breathing, giving me false hope for his survival (and months of struggle to follow). (The sobbing of the woman in the car turned out to be the better predictor. He died two hours later in the hospital.) An EMT asked him his name, but I didn't see or hear whether he replied. I think he moved his left arm, suggesting that he was semi-conscious. The first time I saw the beer can lying apparently undamaged on the median, next to spillage where it had finished draining, I considered kicking it aside, to reduce unnecessary trouble and blame. The second time I saw the beer can, now partially crushed and kicked aside by a bystander, I realized what must have splatted on my windshield. This time I picked up the beer can, to prevent its destruction or removal. I went and smelled the mysterious clear fluid, and it was beer. I went back and offered the can to the police. The officer ordered me to "put it down", because "this is a crime scene", but showed no immediate interest in collecting it as evidence (to dust it for prints, etc.). I felt obliged to take the can into custody if the police were going to ignore it, but I had no way to express that, so I left it there. I don't know what became of the can. I didn't notice the brand. I'm pretty sure it as a tall 16-ounce can. [To me, the beer is more a commentary on state of mind. Hempstead Turnpike is not a beer garden. People need to doubt their own judgment, especially when drinking. About the only more obviously dangerous activities would be crossing Veterans Highway, Sunrise Expressway, any Long Island parkway, or the Long Island Expressway, or playing on Long Island Railroad tracks.]
    The driver must wonder why she was chosen for this, and what she might have done differently that day or week or year. This could have happened to any driver. She had reacted very quickly, stopping 19 feet before the boy. As a driver, I see pedestrians and bicyclists crossing there and many other wrong places, alone and in groups, all the time. Sometimes they terrify drivers with erratic movements and crazy timing. No one stops for them; that would cause a chain reaction collision every hour. By the time you see them it's usually too late to even react. No one calls the police on them; they will be far away in seconds (assuming they survive, which they usually do). Pedestrians on Hempstead Turnpike are normal. (Though, multiply that by 20 to imagine streets in Chinese cities.) "Jaywalking" is not even in the New York vocabulary. People only get cited for jaywalking in California, I have learned. As a pedestrian who hundreds of times took it upon myself to likewise cross Hempstead Turnpike right there, against the light, and between intersections, it was my job to NOT to step out in front of a cruising car or truck, with my life bet on the outcome, every time. [I never thought about what a negative outcome would do to my family and the random driver I "selected" to kill or main me.] I better have serious control of my thinking, and be sure to be sure that I've checked, recently and right now, before I step out there. Mistakes are easy to make, but this is not the place to make them. Even crossing properly, with the light, at a crosswalk demands full attention because others make mistakes too. Even driving through a green light in a car has a small risk of instant death, which might be reduced a bit by a little extra attention. Driving on the parkway is about the safest, until traffic backs up or you run off the road into a beautiful, sturdy tree, and die upon impact. (Trees kill.)

    I relate to the dead guy. We have a few things to talk about, because I have made all the same mistakes, only in different places. It usually takes a combination of several mistakes, plus a bit of bad luck, for something bad to actually happen. I crossed there many times on the way to the Library. I never saw it as a place to cross casually. I got drunk for the first time at 16, in a park with some guys. We walked back to the dorm, after dark, funny-legged, constantly joking, and we crossed a main street. Recently, in a foyer, I distractedly started walking out the open doorway I was no longer standing next to, and bounced off an unlabeled window wall, earning a painful little bone bruise near my eyebrow. Once, while chatting with a passenger in my car, I started to Go after stopping at a red light, until the passenger reminded me that red means Stay Put. Many years ago, I dawdled on Hempstead Turnpike on my bicycle and was bumped by a car turning right from Division Avenue, receiving a bent wheel and a banged knee. I once operated a large power shear in near darkness (only early morning rays coming in through some skylights), a little spacey after being up working all night, and crushed off part of a fingertip and the fingernail. (They grew back, not quite as good as before.) I once rolled past a stop sign (not a 2-way stop) and only realized it afterward. I was lucky I was riding inside a steel box, and lucky no car was coming. (Pedestrians and bicyclists were lucky they were somewhere else.)

    What to do?
    Laws only imagine that they "protect". Laws always threaten and sometimes punish.
    Education could help. Senseless death is only mildly educational. After 100 years of automobile traffic, it still has limited effectiveness. Training in simulators might be effective, especially for driving, especially if students "die" several times in the simulator from simple mistakes, tricky situations, even simulated drunkenness if that is possible.
    Pedestrian overpasses could help. Colleges that span busy roads have been known to add bridges, after a few students die.
    Fences along the roadsides tend to kill cyclists, and could trap jaywalkers in traffic.
    Tall fences down the center of the median would confine pedestrian injuries and deaths to the intersections, and might even reduce their number. But, around here, the police, fire, and rescue departments rely on that mostly-paved median, with no guardrail, as an emergency shoulder and/or 7th lane in either direction. The neighborhoods were all built too close to Hempstead Turnpike to allow for widening it -- it has already been forcibly widened, leaving narrowish lanes, no shoulders, no parking spaces, and sidewalks close to the curb. Any wider would require major demolition, EXCEPT for 3,811 feet of useless south side "service road" in Levittown, which could be sacrificed to create wider lanes, right-turn lanes for the shops, and shoulders for the main road, plus a wider median that could be fenced down the middle!
    In Albuquerque, they divert through traffic from the oldest downtown part of Central Avenue at night, onto the parallel Copper Ave (westbound) and Gold Ave (eastbound), but that arrangement only works in a city grid.
    Regularly spaced safety posts along the roadsides could help keep cars off the sidewalk and decrease impacts with utility poles, trees, and bus stops (a related problem), and they would mark off the boundary between the safe zone and the danger zone.
    93+ Americans die every day in car crashes. That's like another 9/11 every 32 days. We don't initate wars over it, because it's scattered around, sort of a background patter instead of one big bang. It's too hard to fight. There's usually no identifiable enemy, except some of the survivors, some of the dead, and some of those who saw them last. The problem is everywhere. Wednesday night it happened to be Levittown's turn again. That is no comfort to anyone.

    Kids can't do their underage drinking at home any more, where it's safe. Parents have been terrorized by laws and lawsuits and vindictive enforcement. Kids can't buy beer or slide into bars any more, now that the drinking age has been raised to 41. This may be a variation on Prohibition (the opposite of Liberty), which we already know made more problems than it solved. A lot more kids are getting their experience and making their mistakes in college instead of high school.
    Developed open spaces (parks, parking lots, the bleachers) are too well-patrolled now. Open undeveloped spaces are too rare or too far away on Long Island, except for the "recharge basins (sumps). That sump's location next to a busy roadway is unfortunate if people have been using it. (The other sumps are on quiet side streets.) I never heard of or saw anyone entering that sump, except for ice skating, just once, circa 1970. I never thought anyone wanted to use it. It's too small for privacy, and too exposed for holes in the fence or fence climbing to go unnoticed. Its perimeter mostly adjoins back yards and highway, but about 180 feet of it adjoins commercial property.

    Among the young mourners, some of the hundreds who never knew Anthony and never would have known him are contemplating the pain of separation and loss, and the sympathy because, like the young prince Siddhartha, they have not known of suffering.

    Below is my map (reduced in size) of the accident that killed Anthony D'Alessandro, on Hempstead Turnpike, 158 feet west of Division Avenue, Levittown NY, on April 3, 2012, at 9:15pm. It shows the approximate positions of Anthony (green), the minivan (red), and my car (blue), 1s before the impact, at the moment of impact, and where all stopped. I measured several positions by eye, noting the location of the police markings on the road and median, relative to two utility poles and a building across the street, and the 8ft temporary barricades. My positions and all positions 1s before the impact are my estimates.

    (Click for full-size map)

    [I also marked the same points on a custom Google Map:

    This account is one version, my version. If you want to understand more completely or with verification, you'll have to collect independent versions from other eyewitnesses, scene photos and measurements, etc.

    If you must comment, feedback@treeskill.com . I edit occasionally to improve clarity.

    This story was also posted (now as a link) among other comments on a thread at www.newsday.com/long-island/nassau/teen-dies-after-being-hit-on-hempstead-tpke-1.3644037 (Subscribers only.)

    outside quotes:
    "Friends say they had gathered in a sump to have a few drinks and celebrate the first night of spring break ..." -www.news12.com/articleDetail.jsp?articleId=314791


    I know fatal accidents like this one happen, somewhere in America, every day. This one is a little different because I was right there. If you drive 400,000 miles in 30 years, you're more likely to see something like this.
    The memory is fading already. Maybe writing helped; it makes me less obligated to remember it directly. The first few times that I recalled the seconds before and after the impact, it brought a similar strong shock. But, like echoes, they were fainter each time. It was two shocking seconds; a dazed 30 seconds; an unsettled 15 minutes; and hours of intermittent effort to write it and edit it. (There were other things I could have been doing.)
    I even moved on to anger briefly. This guy probably did not even experience his own death, but he made me experience it. As a crime, it could be called "negligent suicide". It is not without consequences for others. If the driver needs a year of counseling, who pays? If she kills herself, who pays her family?

    The day after the accident, I saw a kid standing on the median, talking on a cell phone. If I had had a beer with me in the car, I would have been sorely tempted to stop and hand it to the kid, so he could have the complete ensemble.
    In the first days after the accident, while the vigil was still going on, I thought about publicity stunts, like hanging a giant inflatable cell phone and beer can on the fence near the memorial.

    This incident made me think again about getting a dashboard cam and/or a wearable camera. It's easier to show people what I see than to tell them. Also maybe replacing the digital camera that I always kept in the car.

    It brought a minor re-casting of my life experiences (including others unmentioned).
    I have a slightly more alert perspective when driving. It might last.
    I am thankful for parkways and expressways that keep pedestrians and car traffic far apart.
    There are a few points I might have handled differently in the moment.

    I thought about using simulators to teach about drunk driving and car crashes. I thought if students "died" a few times in simulation, they might be less likely to do it in real life. It would be more difficult to make a simulator for walking and inappropriate crossing.

    Potential objections:

  • It's a horror story.
  • It's brutally honest.
  • It's judgmental.
  • It blames the victim.
  • It insults the kids.
  • It looks like it's all about ME.

    It still occurs to me that I could have done something right after the accident. Some deaths are caused by swelling of the brain. During the minutes of waiting for the ambulance, I could have gone to the 7Eleven right there, bought or swiped a bottle of cold water, and poured it over his head to combat brain swelling. Would it have helped? I don't know. Could it have made a difference in this case? I don't know.

posted 2012.04.07  last edited 2013.04.09