At the Side of the Road, Distraction or Tribute



By Paula Ganzi Licata

THE cross affixed to a utility pole at Centre Avenue and Grand Avenue in Bellmore is surrounded by withered flowers and adorned with a small hockey stick. A piece of palm frond is stapled to the pole under a pink Class of 2002 tassel. A deflated Charlie Brown balloon dangles. A message tacked to the pole reads, ”Steve, it’s been a while, but I still love and miss you. Love always, Colleen 8-23-02.”

The display commemorates Stephen Ferro, who was 15 and riding his bicycle when he was struck and killed at that intersection on June 24, 1999.

Stephen was one of 299 Long Islanders killed in traffic accidents in 1999. The total was 283 in 1998 and 157 in 2000, the last year for which state Department of Motor Vehicles statistics are available. For Stephen and many others whose lives were similarly cut short, loved ones, friends and schoolmates have been moved to build little on-location memorials. On highway guardrails, utility poles and trees, these roadside shrines have become a grim feature of the Long Island landscape.

The commemoration of those lost in traffic accidents was once confined to funeral homes, cemeteries, houses of worship and the homes and classrooms of the victims. But over the last decade or so it has become routine to make a memorial at the accident site itself, usually a public space in full view of every passing driver, passenger and pedestrian.

Do these markers bring comfort? Closure? Do they function as public reminders cautioning drivers, or are they a distraction, and thus a danger?

The roadside memorial at the northeast corner of Sunrise Highway and Merrick Avenue is crowded with bouquets of dead flowers wrapped in funnels of florist paper. Strands of artificial flowers hang on poles and signs; remnants of yellow and black police crime tape are wrapped around the light pole; at the base, melted wax reveals past vigils.

Dustin Freda of Merrick was 14 when he was killed there by a hit-and-run driver on Aug. 10, 2001. The detectives said the car that hit him was traveling 65 in a 45-miles-per-hour zone; its driver was never found.

The light pole and sign posts are covered with messages: ”Dustin, I miss you and love you! Love, Deanna”; ”Happy Birthday Dustin. We will Never Forget You”; ”To our boy, Dustin, We will always love you. You will be forever in our prayers! See you in the light!! Daddy, Lora, Ali and Sara.” The victim smiles out at visitors from a photo in a plastic cover tacked to a nearby tree.

Mary Cariola of Merrick, Dustin’s mother, passes the memorial daily. ”Sometimes it gives me a sense of comfort,” she said. ”But when I am in a bad state of mind and particularly missing him I’ll avoid it. If it gives his friends comfort it’s good for them. It’s not necessarily good for me.”

But she said such memorials provide a valuable warning about the hazards of the road. ”I don’t think they’re as much of a distraction as people think,” she said. ”I’ll pass one and do the sign of the cross and briefly think about the people who loved this person. This is their tribute. If it makes you think for a moment and it saves one other life . . .” Her voice trailed off.

”I’ve seen a lot of teenagers take more care, but there are always ones who test fate,” Ms. Cariola said. She recalled seeing a boy teasingly push a girl into the street. ”I actually yelled at them,” she said. ” ‘My son died crossing Sunrise Highway! Do you see the memorial on Merrick Avenue? That’s my son! Don’t gamble with your life!’ The girl started crying and the boy looked at me like I had 10 heads.”

Roadside memorials are often more accessible than the grave site and may be more inviting to friends and neighbors interested in paying their respects. Karen Hargrove of Bellmore is a friend of Stephen Ferro’s mother’s and has visited the roadside memorial but, since the funeral, not his grave at Pinelawn Cemetery. ”Being that I live in Bellmore and I go down that street, it’s more convenient,” she said.

On the northbound Meadowbrook Parkway in Freeport, a four-foot stretch of guardrail has been dedicated to the memory of Cristin Lucarello, a 20-year-old Freeport resident who was killed in a car accident on March 22, 2001. Artificial purple and red flowers, a strand of orange and gold leaves, and a cross of palms are affixed to the rail with heavy-duty tape and string. Mixed in with the roadside debris — an empty cigarette package, a beer bottle, some fast-food trash — are pieces of ribbon, a deflated ”You’re Special” balloon and the remnants of a battery-powered light.

”People have left a lot of things there,” said Cristin’s sister, Danielle, 21, who was driving the car at the time of the accident and spent that night in the hospital. ”Fake flowers. Crosses. Things that will last.”

Ms. Lucarello said she visits the site throughout the year: her sister’s birthday, the anniversary of the crash, major holidays. She recently decorated for Christmas with pine roping and a small tree.

Ms. Lucarello said she also visits her sister’s grave at Pinelawn Cemetery but isn’t allowed to decorate the grave site lavishly. ”Pinelawn is very strict about what you can put down,” she said. ”You’re not allowed to put fake flowers ever, they always have to be real. And between Thanksgiving and Easter, you’re not allowed to put flowers at all, just blankets.”

And on the Meadowbrook Parkway, Ms. Lucarello said, she feels more closely connected to her own brush with death. ”The Meadowbrook is a reality check for me,” she said. ”Every time I go there it puts me back to that night. Pinelawn is more of her memorial. Meadowbrook is very personal.”

Does it bring her comfort? ”Nothing brings comfort,” Ms. Lucarello said. ”The guy who hit my car is still out there living his life somewhere.”

She hopes memorials serve to caution drivers. ”Every time they catch my eye, it hits me,” Ms. Lucarello said. ”It makes me think. The cops think they’re a distraction. They’ve taken it down numerous times and we put it right back up.

”I’ve been threatened to be arrested,” she said. But she continues to visit. ”I go at 11 or 12 at night when no one is on the road. I think they’ve just realized that we’re a family that won’t abide by what they have to say and we’re going to keep putting it up as often as they take it down,” she said.

Trooper Frank Bandiero of the New York State Police, which patrols the Meadowbrook and other state parkways, said there is no official policy for roadside memorials, but one of the concerns is the safety of visitors. He recalled an incident on the Southern State.

”There had been a fatal accident a couple of days before,” Trooper Bandiero said. ”I saw the guy’s wife and his son. I just stayed with them to make sure they were safe. Most of the time we do not see them leaving flowers, we see it after the fact. I have come across a family member leaving something or just visiting. All I did was stay with them to make sure they were safe. You don’t want them to get hurt, but you don’t want to say, ‘Leave.’ ”

Eileen Peters, public information officer for the state Department of Transportation, said, ”We recognize the need for the families to grieve and we have an informal policy that we don’t touch them unless they’re creating some sort of safety hazard or distraction to other motorists.”

While people may respect the grieving process, some drivers worry about the distraction factor. Karen DeMeo of Port Washington, who passes a memorial on the west side of Port Washington Boulevard near Vincent Smith High School, said, ”Perhaps a place away from the roadside would be a more suitable location for memorials. The memorials are often eye-catching and distracting and I personally feel they might put motorists at risk of further accidents.”

The Long Island chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving is planning another way to commemorate some of those who have died in traffic accidents. Art Nigro, the special projects coordinator for the group, said it plans to break ground in the spring on ”a permanent memorial for all innocent victims killed or injured in drunk-driving crashes.”

The memorial wall will be built on the campus of Farmingdale State University at Route 110 and Melville Road. Mr. Nigro said $100 will buy a brick for the wall. ”Each brick will be inscribed with the name of an innocent victim,” he said. ”Over time, the wall will accommodate about 2,000 names.”

He said the wall is intended only for victims of drunken driving, but he also said that anyone with $100 could buy a brick.

At the northeast corner of Cedar Road and Meadowrue Lane in East Northport, the street sign serves as the base of a roadside memorial for Gary Abbott, a 17-year-old senior at Commack High School who was killed on Oct. 7, 2002, when an S.U.V. carrying three fellow students broadsided his car. Marc Rosenboom, 16, was in the passenger seat in Gary’s car. Marc’s mother, Rita Rosenboom, a secretary, was at work at Robert Newman’s chiropractic office, which faces the intersection where the accident occurred.

”It was a beautiful day,” Dr. Newman recalled. He ran out when he heard the crash and recognized Marc in the passenger’s seat. Marc was uninjured.

Dr. Newman’s office is in his home, a large white colonial style that sits on a spacious corner lot in a quiet residential neighborhood. How does he feel about the memorial outside his door? ”I respect people’s need to grieve,” Mr. Newman said. ”But what I’d like to see is a stop sign put up on Cedar.”

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