A fatal accident on County Road 39 in Southampton brought East End traffic to a grinding halt for almost an entire business day last Thursday, July 25, marking the second time in a just over a year that the South Fork’s main artery was closed in both directions for several hours, making passage eastbound over the Shinnecock Canal nearly impossible until well into the evening.
Last week’s crash, which closed the four-lane highway for nearly nine hours, was followed just four days later by another serious accident a few miles to the east, which again resulted in the closure of the four-lane highway, this time for almost five hours on Monday morning.
Those two accidents—coupled with another non-lethal crash that occurred on July 24, 2012, near the terminus of Sunrise Highway, closing County Road 39 in both directions for nearly six hours—have raised questions about why the highway must be closed for such long stretches of time, especially in cases when there are no fatalities.
The three incidents, which resulted in the complete closure of County Road 39 for 20 hours combined and during peak commuting times, also left many drivers and local residents wondering what steps, if any, have been taken by Southampton Town and its police department officials since last year’s accident to help alleviate the massive traffic that always ensues following a summer crash.
Town Police officials said this week that long closures are unavoidable when there is a fatality, explaining that extensive investigations must be conducted by various agencies, some of which must send a representative to the accident scene from locations far to the west.
Town Police Detective Sergeant Lisa Costa, who responded to both recent accidents, said a fatal car crash must be treated like any other death investigation, meaning that the scene should be disturbed as little as possible while investigating agencies take detailed measurements and photographs, and document all evidence.
Many of the same agencies, she added, must still be called in when there is a serious, non-fatal crash, though in those cases the road closures tend to be shorter but can still last several hours.
The Suffolk County medical examiner’s office, which is based in Hauppauge, does not have to send an official to the scene to declare a driver or passenger dead in fatal accidents. Rather, that task can be completed by a certified paramedic or qualified police personnel, Sgt. Costa said. Still, a representative of the Suffolk County medical examiner’s office, as well as representatives of other agencies, must be called in to investigate before a road can be reopened.
Southampton Village Fire Department public information officer Chris Brenner said his department was called to the scene at 7:05 a.m. on July 25, where they helped manage traffic, assisted in the cleanup of the road and extricated the body of the victim—29-year-old Carissa Castillo of Shirley—using the Jaws of Life.
Mr. Brenner said Ms. Castillo’s body was not immediately removed from the car, in accordance with Town Police directions, and declined to say how long it was there before being extricated. He noted that the extrication process took between 10 and 15 minutes, and that his department was off the scene by 12:45 p.m.
Following last week’s fatal crash, a head-on collision between an SUV and a Hampton Jitney bus, several agencies had to be called to the scene. In addition to Town Police detectives, representatives of the State Police Forensic ID and Collision Reconstruction Unit, the Suffolk County Police Motor Carrier Unit, the State Department of Transportation Motor Carrier Unit and the Suffolk County medical examiner’s office all had to conduct their own separate investigations of the scene, which spanned a half mile of road littered with debris. Additionally, the Suffolk County Department of Public Works and the Southampton Fire Department had to clear the scene of debris and various fluids strewn across the road before it could be reopened to traffic, Sgt. Costa said.
“It’s a death investigation,” she said. “It’s a complete forensic investigation of the entire scene, which was a half mile long. It’s a coordination of multiple agencies, the collection of forensic evidence.
“It’s somebody’s life that we’re talking about here,” she continued. “We have to do everything we can to make sure we do our due diligence.”
A non-lethal crash that occurred at 4:37 a.m. on Monday on County Road 39, a few miles east of the fatal accident, involved a Hampton Jitney bus and a garbage truck. That accident still forced the closure of the entire road for nearly five hours as many of the same agencies had to be called in, including the Suffolk County Police Motor Carrier Unit, which provides assistance to investigations of death and serious injury, as well as accidents involving buses or trucks, as all three crashes in 2012 and 2013 that closed County Road 39 did.
Suffolk County Police Deputy Inspector Thaddeus Nieves wrote in an email this week that each accident they respond to—most of which are fatal or involve serious injuries—is handled on a case-by-case basis, meaning that the extent of the subsequent road closures can vary considerably. Still, most require that the road be closed down and traffic diverted until it is “appropriate” to allow traffic through again when a thorough investigation is complete.
Mr. Nieves noted that fatal accident investigations taking place in his jurisdiction generally include taking photographs of the scene, taking detailed measurements, interviewing potential witnesses, collecting detailed evidence and impounding the involved vehicles, among other duties. It is not unusual for those tasks to take several hours to complete.
“While the [Suffolk County Police] department is aware that closing a road may be inconvenient to motorists, our primary focus is ensuring our police investigation has been fully completed and that the road is safe for travel to resume upon it,” Mr. Nieves wrote.
His prepared response did not offer an explanation in terms of how long his officers typically close a major roadway following a fatality. The Suffolk County Police Department Public Information Office did not respond to requests seeking additional information regarding its procedures in such accidents.
Vanessa Baird-Streeter, a spokeswoman for Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone, did not respond to calls and an email with questions regarding county procedure during fatal motor vehicle accidents.
Beau Duffy, a public information officer with the State Department of Transportation, said the length of time a road must be closed after a serious crash varies, explaining that it depends on the circumstances of each accident. He did note that fatal accidents typically take longer to investigate, though it is not an absolute rule. He said the delays usually boil down to how quickly police can finish gathering all evidence and information.
“With any closure, you want to get traffic restored as quickly as possible, but every accident is different,” Mr. Duffy said.
The geography of the East End, and the fact that there are only two ways to cross the Shinnecock Canal by car, the other being Montauk Highway, make alleviating traffic during such circumstances almost impossible.
“We are obviously constrained by our geography here, with only one major roadway, but that is the nature of our long and narrow island,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, noting that Town Board members are supposed to discus the situation during this week’s work session.
Although strategies for better handling traffic were discussed after last year’s non-fatal crash, Southampton Town Director of Public Transportation and Traffic Safety Thomas Neely said he was not involved in any follow-up discussions with the Town Police or the supervisor’s office. He added that, to his knowledge, there weren’t any follow-up meetings
Mr. Neely said the concerns were discussed at length during last year’s meeting, with both he and former Town Police Chief William Wilson agreeing that their options were limited. Mr. Neely said there have been discussions about how to handle similar incidents during evacuations, including utilizing roads such as Montauk Highway as one-way streets, an option that he said was determined to be ill-advised as it would create more hazards.
New strategies are in the works for handling other potential traffic disruptions, such as weather-related evacuations, which Mr. Neely said would be easier managed than a major accident because officials would have ample time to inform drivers of route changes and position police officers to direct flow instead of haphazardly attempting to do so at a moment’s notice.
“We have a very fragile transportation network here,” Mr. Neely said. “There is basically no redundancy in the system. There are two roads in and out, so there’s very little we can do when we don’t have advance notice.”
One initiative the town developed in the wake of the 2012 crash was three-pronged alert system that included spreading the word of such closures via Facebook and Twitter, and through a mass alert system called CodeRED. The system was specifically introduced to alert town residents of major occurrences, such as traffic backups.
No notification was sent out after either accident, and a call placed to Ms. Throne-Holst to explain why was not immediately returned.
Ms. Throne-Holst declined to specify what steps have been taken since last year’s crash, or what discussions she’s had with the new police chief, Robert Pearce, since he took over the post late last year. She deferred all discussion on the issue until Thursday morning’s work session.
“We had started that conversation last year after a similar crash almost exactly one year prior in the same area,” Ms. Throne-Holst said on Friday. “We have to have that conversation continue now under the new administration.”
Town Police Lieutenant James Kiernan said the department’s administration realizes how crash investigations can be an inconvenience to drivers, adding that he hopes to have a plan in place in time for upcoming budget discussions. He said a discussion had been going on prior to last week’s crash, and that Chief Pearce would be brought in to participate in those talks this week.
Lt. Kiernan said the goal is to have “a balance between quality investigation and public inconvenience. You want to produce that quality product, and you want keep the community up and running,” adding that such as balance has not yet been found.
Chief Pearce did not respond to repeated requests seeking comment this week.
Lt. Kiernan is hopeful that the traffic can be reduced in the future but said it will always be something commuters will have to deal with to some extent during accident investigations.
“There’s a certain amount that people are going to have to deal with—nothing can alleviate all of the problem, but I believe there are things that can reduce it,” he said. “We don’t have the alternative routes that can handle a large amount of traffic like other parts of the county.”
Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman said steps have been taken in recent years to reduce the amount of time it takes to clear an accident scene, such as changing the Suffolk County medical examiner’s office policy that had required a representative from that office to declare someone dead at the scene. He added that he would be willing to explore other options, such as creating offices closer to the East End for those entities that must respond to fatal accidents.
Ultimately, he said, the issue is one that needs to be handled by Town Police.
“We have to look at what procedures are in place and how they can be improved,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “I’m happy to come in and bring in whatever county resources I can, but, ultimately, that is something that should be headed by the Southampton Town PD.”