-- Stephen King, "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French"
Holy shit! muttered the cop in the Shrewsbury patrol car, half-hidden along the eastbound bend of I-44 between the Elm Avenue and Laclede Station Road exits. He had his radar gun out, checking for speeders. The limit there was 65 mph, so a 70 was a possibility, depending on the make of car and how many he'd ticketed that day, but a vehicle doing 75 or more, hey, that was automatic pursuit. But what he saw that day, Oct. 9, 1995, a little after lunchtime, was the radar cop's wet dream and it freaked him, this souped-up six-cylinder 1991 Camaro flying down the interstate toward the city, doing better than 100 by the radar, weaving in and out of lanes like an errant bottle rocket.
Inside the Camaro, borrowed for the day's joyride, were four teens from West County. The two in the back were students at Marquette High School. They had skipped school and somehow hooked up with the two older guys in the front, whom they hardly knew but who had procured some interesting drugs, nitrous oxide and magic mushrooms. A hell of a one-two punch. The driver, 19-year-old Mohammed Ayyash, saw the patrol car and took it to the nth degree of speed. He was going to get away. The officer radioed in, but before he could even begin the chase, the Camaro veered up an embankment, hit some rocks and came back down on its hood. Three of the teens, including Ayyash, crawled out from the wreckage and ran away. The fourth, 15-year-old Zach Miller, lay dead.
In the aftermath of that accident, Ayyash, a laborer, pleaded guilty on all counts: involuntary manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident, possession of a controlled substance, driving while suspended. He's now finishing up a seven-year sentence.
Miles from the West County cemetery where Zach Miller is buried is a small, inconspicuous cross erected on the limestone gradient along I-44 just west of the Shrewsbury Avenue overpass. A pass at 55 mph affords only a fleeting glance, though were you to scale the chain-link fence above the highway, near St. Michael's School, and walk down to it, you would see the epitaph, which reads: "Zach -- 15 and Taken Too Soon. We Miss You, Mom and Sis."
Zach's memorial is part of a growing national trend to commemorate traffic fatalities at the spots where they occurred. You've seen them, little roadside shrines with flowers, balloons, streamers, personal mementos and other details you can't quite make out as you fly past yearning for more rock, less talk. Some are slapped together and won't last long; others look as though they were done professionally. No authority sanctions them; they simply appear one day, a tribute, an homage, a testament to the deceased by friends and family. And whether you find them touching or distracting or downright disturbing, get used to them -- just as American society has gotten used to the 43,300 traffic deaths nationwide (1996 tally, down 10,000 from 1980) -- because they are and will continue to be in our faces, a poignant reminder of the preciousness of life.
What is it that prompts a grieving set of friends and family to imperil themselves by placing a memorial on a busy highway? Aren't laudatory funeral services and periodic visits to manicured cemetery plots enough? Apparently not.
In the case of the Millers, who had lost another son to a car crash two years before Zach's death, the motivation was plain and simple: "It was just out of loving care," says Zach's dad, Bob Miller, a retired police officer. "A way to remember."
"I'd seen them around and I didn't want to forget Zach -- I think of him every day still," says Rachel Doering, 28, Zach's sister. The cross on I-44 came about, she says, after she spoke to a friend whose dad had a manufacturing plant where they stamped metal. "She took the idea and ran with it," says Doering. "I was really surprised when I saw it -- I didn't expect anything that elaborate." In their choice of location, Rachel and her mom "tried to get it out of the way of the mowers." They return once a year to check on the cross and clean up around it. "We try to plant flowers," she says, "but it's so rocky. Once I found a poem someone had left under a rock, someone saying how they used to play on that hill as a kid and now there was sadness there. Kind of strange how people leave these touchstones."
But is the highway site more significant than her brother's actual resting place? "Originally it meant a lot to me," Doering says. "It was the last spot he was alive. When I first went there, I could still see the tire tracks and some debris from the crash. It was really important to me to walk that track and see what happened." While Zach Miller's machine-crafted marker is durable and somewhat official-looking, most of them have an ephemeral, folk-art quality about them. Just west of McKnight Road, on the fence separating the outer road from eastbound I-64, is a display with streamers, personal mementos and a small plaque that reads, "Dean Hartronft." Last summer in southeast Illinois, we saw a 6-foot rough-hewn wooden cross, bearing only these words: "Nine Toes." Another shrine, observed on Highway 94 near Busch Wildlife in St. Charles County: three crosses with hand-lettered words, "RIP We love you Jeff" (Gittemeier, 18, who died on June 29, 1998, after an accident at the site). Trenton, Mo., no name, merely ribbons and plastic flowers wrapped around the concrete column of a highway overpass, with a roughly drawn sign reading, "Please! Don't Drink & Drive." Look for a memorial for road-rage fatality Jennifer Hywari (August 1997) along I-64 in the Chesterfield Valley. Hywari's family and friends have also adopted that stretch of highway to maintain. There are scads more out there.
Spokespersons for both the Missouri Highway Patrol and the Missouri Department of Transportation acknowledge that though the markers are sprouting up with increasing incidence, by and large they escape bureaucratic scrutiny. "Truly they are illegal," says Linda Wilson, of MoDOT public affairs, "but we don't want to appear cold-hearted, so we leave them alone unless they pose a hazard to traffic. We have no official information why they are there, who put them there, how many there are."
Meanwhile, a St. Charles County resident, troubled at seeing a recent Channel 5 news report on the roadside markers, has filed a lawsuit against MoDOT and the Highway Patrol for failing to enforce the law. The lawsuit also treads on inflammatory Nativity-scene territory by alleging that state officials are violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment by permitting roadside crosses to remain on public property. Thank God for concerned citizenry
Sgt. Terry St. Clair has also noted the phenomenon of these memorials. "I've seen them off and on for the last four or five years now," says the Missouri Highway Patrol spokesman, stationed at Troop C Headquarters on Mason Road at I-64. "I hate to use the term 'gaining in popularity,' but they're certainly gaining in number. And I guess if you sit back and look at it, it's a sign of the times -- the fact that we lose a lot of people in traffic crashes and, I don't know, maybe those things are going to be with us for a long time. Maybe they should be."
Some states officially mark the sites of fatal accidents. Montana, for example, places white crosses at such sites. If three people died in an accident on a hairpin curve in Kalispell, look for a cluster of three white crosses. Since 1982, the South Dakota Department of Transportation has adopted the use of "fatal accident markers," or "Think" signs. The black, red and white diamond-shaped signs -- which read, somewhat ominously, "X Marks the Spot" and "Think! Drive Safely" -- are placed at all fatal-crash sites on the state-highway system (The signs are furnished for placement on county and township roads and city streets, though participation in the program is optional on a county-by-county basis). The sign has been around since 1951; the message and layout was originally developed by an Iowa insurance company and used to mark fatal-accident locations in that state until the 1960s. Missouri may be the next to try this.
St. Clair says that the idea of "having the state mark a spot" was seriously discussed during a recent meeting of highway officials and law-enforcement officers in Jefferson City. "We thought that if we show people this spot is where somebody died -- and each year in Missouri we're killing between 1,100 and 1,200 people on our roads -- that would definitely increase awareness. And if a person sees that marker and it makes them more safe, even for a half-hour, maybe that's the half-hour they need to slow down and pay closer attention.
"Obviously if we go around marking every spot, after a few years, the highways would be studded with those markers, and the suggestion was that perhaps we could leave them for a year, from the time of the crash until the anniversary date, and then remove them. That might be acceptable to folks, we thought, so the idea was passed up the chain of command, and they'll take it to the Highway Department to see what the feasibility is. There are all kinds of things involved when you start state machinery rolling," adds St. Clair. "They have to look at where to get the material, the money, who's going to notify the Highway Department to put the sign up, to take the sign down."
And then there is the added ethical consideration that, though the signs probably would not bear the names of the victims, the family of the deceased might not want to see a visible reminder of their dear departed as they drive to work each morning. Hence Missouri may consider adopting the provision used by the South Dakota DOT, specifically: "When the 'Think' sign is placed at a location where there is reason to believe it may cause emotional problems to the immediate family of the accident victim, the governmental agency responsible for erecting the marker will check with the family before putting up the sign. If any family member objects, the sign will not be placed." Of course, this well-meaning condition requires conscientious action on the part of an already harried bureaucrat who may have emotional problems of his or her own. Things could become slightly complicated.
Letting the state put up the markers would also alleviate another worry. Says St. Clair, "If folks take the time to put these things on the highway, they expose themselves to motorists who're maybe not paying attention or speeding or intoxicated -- all the things people do on the highway-- and that really concerns me that we may end up having a double tragedy for a family." Still, people being people, some will take it upon themselves to decorate and theme the state-sanctioned markers.
In a sad way it is understandable how we as a society are willing to put up with this staggering number of traffic deaths. Look at it in an actuarial sense: When 300 people die in an airplane crash, that's sensational, a big story on CNN, as well it should be. However, change the mode of transportation from airplane to motor vehicle, take that same number of fatalities and spread it out over several weeks across the nation, and the story loses impact. The mourning is scattered, the rent in the community fabric isolated to a few households. With these calamities occurring routinely yet in fragmented pattern, it becomes easier, more natural, for people to achieve denial over the carnage on our highways -- until it happens to someone they know. These sincere and impromptu memorials represent anti-denial. They force the passing motorist to confront the tragedy of some lost life, a stranger, yes, but a fellow human being, too.