I have never liked that intersection. Ever since our daughter and her family moved from East Marion to Cutchogue several years ago, the former Joan Giger Walker and I have found ourselves several times a week at the blinker light on the corner of Depot Lane and Route 48 in Cutchogue.
It’s a dangerous intersection, with no stoplight and cars racing east and west at speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour.
And there we were again this past Saturday evening just before 5:30, heading home to Orient, when we drove south on Depot Lane and came upon the scene of a nightmare.
The crash had just happened. Traffic was stopped in both directions and there was no sign yet of emergency vehicles, although about a dozen people scurried around the wreckage. Our first instinct was to call 911, but then we heard the first sirens approaching.
What was immediately apparent was that this had to be a fatal crash. The black stretch limo in the westbound lanes appeared to be cut in half behind the front passenger door. And we both had the same thought at the same time: If there were passengers in the back, they probably didn’t make it.
Joan remembers seeing a man sitting on the tailgate of the red pickup truck and I remember my journalistic instincts kicking in. I called the newspaper as at least a dozen emergency vehicles began to arrive at the scene.
The aftermath of this tragedy will resonate for years. And in the case of those who lost loved ones, it will resonate forever. Our deepest sympathy goes out to the families of the victims and survivors.
The driver of the pickup, Steven Romeo, has been roundly vilified, and rightly so. He has admitted to drinking before he drove, and that is likely to result in the filing of criminal charges and, perhaps, a lengthy jail term. But there are mitigating factors, too, including eyewitnesses who say the limo pulled directly into the path of his truck and preliminary indications that Mr. Romeo was traveling at a normal speed in traffic.
Why, then, did he allegedly flee the scene of the crash? One can only surmise that he was in shock. And who wouldn’t want to run away, instinctively, from something like that?
And what now? Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley told me this week that Suffolk County had already been studying that intersection with an eye on installing a traffic light. Earth to Suffolk County: No further study is necessary. That light should be installed immediately.
Secondly, those omnipresent stretch limos need to be prohibited from making U-turns anywhere in Southold Town. And if that means they can no longer access vineyard tasting rooms, so be it.
That is not to say a traffic light and improved signage would have prevented this tragedy. Accidents happen, particularly when alcohol is factored in. (Our car was sideswiped by an unlicensed, uninsured drunk driver on Main Road in Orient several years ago, but fortunately our injuries were minor.)
But at the very least — in respect to the memory of Brittney M. Schulman, Lauren Baruch, Stephanie Belli and Amy R. Grabina — the aforementioned actions need to be taken now to help ensure that this sort of tragedy never happens again in Southold Town.
The author is the former co-publisher and owner of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].
Photo caption: Southold resident Carol Owens didn’t know the victims, but still visited the crash scene Tuesday with flowers.