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At any time, crossing U.S. 19 a risky business

More pedestrians die crossing U.S. 19 than all other major Pasco roads combined. Why? Most of the accidents have several common factors.

[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Sgt. Erik Anthes, supervisor of the Pasco Sheriff's Special Traffic Enforcement Patrol, was among law enforcement officers and community volunteers who hand out flashing lights to pedestrians along U.S. 19 in an attempt to make them more visible to drivers.

By MATTHEW WAITE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 20, 2002

Rick Hesson stormed out of the bar. It was just after dark on Christmas Day 2000, and he was drunk and angry.

Some patrons said that Hesson mouthed off to the bartender that night and got thrown out. Others said the 50-year-old was in a huff because no one would call him a cab.

"All I know is he left the bar and crossed the street," recalled his wife, Lori.

Walking across the broken concrete of the Anchorage Bar's parking lot, Hesson was less than half a mile from his home in Hudson. Three obstacles were in the way: his drinking habit, darkness and six lanes of Florida's deadliest highway for pedestrians.

Hesson decided to cross U.S. 19 just south of Beach Drive, not a quarter-mile from the tan door of the bar. No streetlights illuminate U.S. 19 there. The brightest lights are from a Chevy dealer, but they illuminate the cars, not the highway.

Hesson made it across the three northbound lanes and the median. Then, in the southbound lane, with a car approaching, he stopped.

A witness said Hesson looked startled and turned sideways, as if he were trying to let the car pass by him like a matador with a bull.

Rick Hesson died in the dark, jaywalking and drunk.

In those particulars, especially the first two, his death typified the 58 pedestrian fatalities on U.S. 19 in Pasco between 1990 and 2000. In that time, more pedestrians died on U.S. 19 than Pasco's other major thoroughfares, State Roads 52, 54 and U.S. 41, 98 and 301, combined.

A pattern in the deaths

Who dies on U.S. 19, when they die and where they die follow distinct patterns. A Times analysis of data from 1990 to 2000 found that most are middle aged men who try to cross the road . . .

At night (88 percent).

Where there are no street lights (74 percent).

Away from pedestrian crosswalks (76 percent).

After drinking alcohol (55 percent).

Weather seldom is a factor.

The trend continued last year, setting a record. Eleven more died walking on, near or across U.S. 19, two more than the previous record in 1998.

On Jan. 5, 2001, at about 9:45 p.m., a car struck and killed 46-year old John Holmes, making him the first pedestrian to die last year on Pasco's section of U.S. 19.

The 11th was 36-year-old Michael Murray, who died three days before Christmas.

Holmes, Murray and five other deaths in 2001 happened at night; eight of the 11 fatalities were jaywalking. Reports were not available of alcohol use in most of the incidents.

All but three died in the same places where 90 percent of previous pedestrian fatalities occurred: in a stretch of U.S. 19 from Marine Parkway south to the county line, or from State Road 52 north to the other county line.

Of course, not every pedestrian death on U.S. 19 followed the pattern.

Charles Nowokunski Jr. wasn't drunk on the day he died. He wasn't crossing the busy highway. The morning sun was shining brightly that day. Neither lights nor road engineering could have saved his life.

On Jan. 26, 2001, 22-year-old Nowokunski walked off a commercial fishing boat in Tarpon Springs, having just told his boss that he was done with his job on the water.

"He wanted to get back on dry land and work with his daddy," Nowokunski's mother, Trudy Schiedenhelm said.

As he walked along U.S. 19 near Flora Avenue at 9:20 in the morning he was run down by a car heading north that veered off the roadway. The driver, Brian McDonough of New Port Richey, was asleep at the wheel, he told Florida Highway Patrol troopers.

The impact threw Nowokunski's body 65 feet down the roadway.

His was the first daylight pedestrian death on U.S. 19 in Pasco since 1993.

Schiedenhelm, 42, keeps her son's ashes on her dresser. She said she won't put him to rest until the civil suit against McDonough is through.

"The whole family is in shock over his loss," she said. "We still haven't gotten over it.

"He could have done such great things. Nobody will know for sure now."

Nine months later, 11-year old Nicholas Matyas was killed in the afternoon of Oct. 3 trying to cross U.S. 19 near Main Street. He was the youngest person killed since 1990.

"There was absolutely no evasive action the driver could have taken," New Port Richey Police Capt. Darryl Garman said at the time.

Killing speed

Being hit by a car is not an instant death sentence.

A 1999 federal study says that few people hit by a car going 20 mph or less will die.

A look at all pedestrian crashes in Pasco bears this out. People who reported minor or no injuries to police -- 842 of them from 1990-2000 -- were hit by cars going an average of 16 mph. People with serious injuries were struck by cars going an average of 25 mph.

The 144 people who died between 1990-2000 from being struck by a car were hit by cars going an average of 42 mph (46 mph on U.S. 19), nearly double the speed needed to break a young man's bones.

Those who survive the initial impact often end up at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. And when they come in, said trauma surgeon Steven Epstein, they are not in good shape.

The damage starts at the legs, around the knees, where the bumper hits.

"A lot of these are open fractures," Epstein said. "The bone comes through the skin."

From that first impact, the pedestrian does one of three things. He or she might fold over and hit the hood and windshield; flip straight over the car, cartwheeling through the air and onto the pavement behind the car; or be propelled straight back down the highway.

Epstein said injuries from those collisions could be broken legs and arms; broken necks are common. So are internal injuries, like ruptured spleens or livers. The worst, Epstein said, are the head injuries that can leave a pedestrian in a coma or permanently brain damaged.

"The bizarre part is why they aren't dead," Epstein said. Maybe they moved far enough to just take a glancing blow, or the car wasn't going as fast as once believed. Or maybe it's just a miracle. It's amazing what the body can take."

But for those who don't get nicked, the end is quick for those hit at highway speed.

When people die, it is usually from the second impact, with the pavement.

"I suspect that the really true, 45 mph head-on crash, I suspect we don't get them," Epstein said. "I think they are dead."

On Dec. 14, 32-year old Michael Bonner ran across U.S. 19 just north of Jasmine Boulevard on his way home from his job at a nearby restaurant. He walked by two stoplights with pedestrian crossings to get to the spot on U.S. 19 where he darted out in a break in traffic.

He didn't die or even get hurt. He just ran in front of the headlights of Pasco County Sheriff's Sgt. Erik Anthes.

Anthes, out with a dozen other officers from three police agencies on a safety blitz, pulled over to give Bonner a lecture and a little flashing light to make him more visible.

"I didn't even think about it," Bonner said about crossing 19. "My feet just carried me."

When asked why he would pass by two pedestrian crosswalks to risk a night crossing of six lanes, he said, "Convenience, basically."

Answers to the prayers

When Rick Hesson died, his wife Lori had never before planned a funeral. She didn't have a job. She didn't pay the bills, or know what bills they had. Rick took care of her.

If it weren't for the people of the First United Methodist Church of Hudson, her life would still be in shambles, she said. They helped her through the funeral, through the struggles with bills, through getting a job.

Lori Hesson said recently that she has put her life back together. She's going to get married again, to a man she met at church.

She has come to realize that she couldn't help Rick Hesson with his drinking problems because he wouldn't help himself, she said. When he was drinking, Rick Hesson would scream and yell and smash things, she said. Lori Hesson would pray, pray that God would help him stop drinking. She prayed to God to save their marriage.

In an unexpected way, she said, her prayers were answered. Lori Hesson prayed that her husband would find God. She said God found him.

"Jesus got the perfect birthday present," she said. "He wanted Ricky to come home.

"He's with the Lord, and Jesus is looking over him."

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