Amy Grabina, 23, had just graduated from college and started her first job as an accountant at Ernst & Young. Stephanie Belli, 23, was a business student at SUNY Farmingdale. Brittany Schulman, also 23, had graduated last year from SUNY Cortland with a degree in communications. Lauren Baruch, 24 was juggling three jobs and loved to plan fun adventures with her friends.
Until last Saturday afternoon, what these four women — three of whom had known each other since elementary school — had in common was a hopeful future and a plan to celebrate their role as bridesmaids in a friend’s wedding.
You’ve probably heard every detail of the story of the Cutchogue limousine crash that killed these four young women and injured four of their friends, including the bride-to-be, somewhere in the past week.
You’ve heard of how they had rented a limo to tour wine country responsibly, of how the owner of a Southold marine electronics business, Steven Romeo, 55, had admitted to drinking beer before he got behind the wheel of his red pickup truck and headed west down Route 48, ultimately t-boning the limousine as it made a u-turn at Depot Lane after leaving Vineyard 48.
The story has turned up everywhere, and not just on the East End. It’s traveled around the world — to the Irish Mirror to U.S. News & World Report to numerous lengthy accounts in the New York Times. The media frenzy had gotten so bad by last Monday morning that Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota had to admonish the press for sneaking into the hospital rooms of the survivors of the crash.
I make that turn at Depot Lane several times a week, but I’ve subconsciously gone out of my way all week to take a different route to where I need to be. That spot along the highway is haunted now, for the families of those who died and were injured there, and for the people who live on the North Fork, who have suddenly seen their hometowns redefined, in front of the world, by one horrible moment.
It’s haunted for the first responders, many of whom had never seen something this horrible in a volunteer profession filled with seeing horrible things. It’s haunted for the neighbors of Vineyard 48, who spent years attending Southold Town Board meetings pleading that something be done about the dangerous limousine maneuvers in their neighborhood.
We’ve been getting messages all week from a friend in the city who reads The New York Times religiously. He wants to know if we knew that ‘horrible’ man, Romeo (we don’t). He wants to know all about our cowboy court justice, Rudy Bruer, and the $250 bail he set for “his buddy” John Costello, who killed another driver last winter when allegedly driving while intoxicated, while Mr. Romeo’s bail was initially set at half a million dollars.
I haven’t really had much to say. What can you say when your backyard becomes a nightmare. We’ve all just been in shock.
Mr. Romeo, who was injured in the accident, was still hospitalized as of the end of this week. Toxicology reports came back that he had a blood alcohol level of .066 percent — just below the legal limit of .08 percent.
Route 48 has always been a strange road — four lanes of fast-moving asphalt connecting Mattituck to Southold, an anomaly in a community where every other road is a country lane. Widened in the 1970s, it was initially planned to be a North Fork extension of the Long Island Expressway. That never happened. It had initially been planned to continue westward down Sound Avenue, connecting to a nuclear power plant that had been proposed where the Hallockville Museum Farm is now. That didn’t happen either.
The traffic lights up and down Route 48 reflect the North Fork’s country road ethos.
When I returned home to work on the North Fork after a decade on the South Fork, the lights confused me no end — primarily because in several places the left hand turn lanes have green lights, even when there’s oncoming traffic coming from the opposite direction. Some of these left turn lane lights have a little sign next to them telling people to yield to oncoming traffic. Some don’t. Even though I grew up on the North Fork, it took me a few weeks to remember to stop at those green lights and wait for oncoming traffic. I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere else — on any other road, a left hand turn lane’s light would be red when traffic is moving in the opposite lane.
But the intersection at Depot Lane is just a blinking yellow and red light — yellow for the traffic on Route 48 and red for the traffic on Depot. There have been plans for a real traffic light in the works there for years, and there’s talk about expediting those plans now. It’s a pretty nondescript place, an easy intersection to miss if you’re heading west on Route 48, up around a curve that obscures the blinking light until just before you see it. This was Mr. Romeo’s trajectory last Saturday afternoon.
I finally headed east down Route 48 on Friday afternoon. It was busy, but the traffic was slower than usual. By the time we got to that iconic red barn, near the raspberry stand a mile or so before Depot Lane, it seemed every driver on the road had dialed back their speed to 55 miles per hour, but no one slowed any further to rubberneck as they passed through the intersection.
I doubled back at the next u-turn cut in — there are many along this stretch of highway, where u-turns are permitted because, in many cases, they’re the only way to get to where you want to go on the opposite side of the highway.
Friends of the four women who lost their lives there last Saturday had begun a roadside shrine at a telephone pole at the northwest corner of Depot Lane and the highway. They’d originally been putting flowers by the one way sign in the middle of the highway, but this is a safer place, if anywhere at this intersection can now be seen as safe.
There are four white crosses nailed to the pole, under which are four bold sunflowers. There are red, white and blue crepe paper bouquets that will outlast the rest of this shrine, and arrangements hastily purchased from florists in Cutchogue. There’s a sprig of wildflowers in a Pure Leaf tea bottle and a green ceramic jug imprinted with daisies, holding an arrangement that’s wilted in the hot sun of a turbulent week. There are four white quartzite beach stones placed in a row, with a weathered piece of a clamshell above them.
I turned around on Depot Lane and waited a long time to try to make a left hand turn back out onto Route 48, nervous about pulling into the intersection. There were plenty of other drivers there also taking their time, as the late afternoon traffic whizzed past at highway speed. Someone with a blue light on his dashboard waited for a good five minutes to make that same u-turn that the limo made last week. A traffic control police car waited for what felt like forever before he found a clear spot in the flood of cars and gunned his way across the highway.
I finally took a shot at turning left eastbound, while a Mack truck made a left turning westbound. Something about the alignment of the intersection put us both on a collision course before we adjusted and passed one another. I was relieved to have survived a turn that I would have thought nothing of making any other day.
Down at the Cutchogue King Kullen, shoppers wandered around among the potatoes and ice cream, the newstand by the front door a constant reminder of how much this community has changed in the past week.
This summer has seen unprecedented bad traffic from one end of the East End to the other. It’s a sign of a booming economy, but it’s also a sign that we’ve really gone over the edge of what we thought we were. We’re not a quiet seaside escape, and we’re not an idyllic backwater. We are rapidly becoming an extension of the New York metropolitan area. Our public planning needs to reflect that unfortunate reality, before more people die.