(Photos © J. Maus)
A vigil was held tonight to remember Angela Burke, the 26-year old woman was killed last Wednesday night while trying to walk across SW Barbur Blvd. Under a full moon, inches from five lanes of high speed traffic and a few hundred feet from where Burke was struck, people lit candles, spoke softly to one another, and huddled to stay warm
“We’ve been doing too much talking and not enough doing.”
— Marianne Fitzgerald, neighborhood activist
In order for people to attend the event without being hit themselves (people walked to the vigil location from parking lots nearby), neighborhood volunteers passed out orange safety vests and put up signs that read, “Please Drive Slowly.” The Oregon Department of Transportation also set out cones along the curb to warn people in cars of the event.
Barbur in this stretch (especially during rush hour) is nearly uncrossable to all but the most daring individuals. At one point a group of Burke’s co-workers who wanted to pay their respects stood across the street and looked at the gathering vigil crowd. Unable to cross, they walked a few tenths of a mile south to a signed crossing near a TriMet bus stop (even that was “scary,” said one woman in the group) and then walked north in the bike lane against traffic to get to the vigil location.
Its dangerous maneuvers like that that make neighborhood activist Marianne Fitzgerald frustrated. She said the time has come for ODOT and the City of Portland to make Barbur safer. “We’ve been doing too much talking and not enough doing.” Fitzgerald helped the city develop the Barbur Streetscape Plan back in 1999 but it has remained largely unfunded ever since (except for about 4,000 feet of sidewalk just south of downtown which PBOT funded through a federal stimulus grant).
“I came out tonight because I wanted to find out what I can do. Something’s gotta’ happen here.”
— Cara Carlson, nearby resident
After the vigil, Fitzgerald will join ODOT and PBOT staff at a neighborhood meeting to discuss safety issues on Barbur. The meeting was planned two months ago — after a man was struck by a car and killed while trying to walk across Barbur about a mile south of where Burke was hit. “It’s just a tragic coincidence,” she said, that another life has been lost just before that meeting.
Cara Carlson, 33, lives in the Town & Country Apartments just across the street from where Burke was hit. She was driving home on Wednesday night and was escorted through the crash scene by police. “That made it so real for me,” she said.
The experience shook Carlson into action. “I came out tonight because I wanted to find out what I can do. Something’s gotta’ happen here… I walk, I drive, I take the bus, and I ride by bike on this street and no matter what I’m doing, it’s horrible… I love my apartment and I don’t want to leave just because I’m afraid to move around.”
“I didn’t know Angela,” Carlson said, “but I’m compelled to do something.”
This tragedy was also very real for another person at the vigil; a man who was in the back seat of Caleb Pruitt’s car when the collision occurred (Pruitt’s girlfriend was in the passenger side and sustained minor injuries in the crash).
Malakai (a nickname, he didn’t want his real name used) says he had only known Pruitt for about an hour. After having drinks, he hopped in Pruitt’s Subaru sports car for a ride home. Minutes before hitting Burke, Malakai recalled that Pruitt was showing off his driving skills in what Malakai referred to as a “very nice and very fast” car.
“What do you think?!” Pruitt allegedly asked Malakai as they gained speed with each block, “Now it’s not a matter of skill,” Malakai replied, “It’s a matter of luck.” Those were the last words spoken… just before Pruitt’s luck ran out.
According to Malakai, he recalls seeing Burke trying to cross the street. Pruitt, he says, tried to swerve around her, but his speed was simply too fast for either person to avoid the collision.
Could any improvement in road design prevent a collision when a young man has a few drinks and decides to take his souped-up sports car for a thrill ride? Nothing can prevent every crash, but certainly more can be done to make Barbur — with it’s wide, unimpeded lanes and sweeping curves — less tempting for future Caleb Pruitts.
Ron Kroop is the ODOT District Manager of Operations and Maintenance for this area. Kroop said he takes his job seriously and “internalizes and anguishes over every fatality and injury” that happens on highways he oversees.
As for making it safer to cross, he said, “It’s not an easy answer.” “The speed of the vehicles and the curve make it a real challenge.” He spoke of the complexity and challenges inherent in balancing the need for humans to cross the street with the ability for people in cars to stop in time to avoid hitting them (or other cars).
There’s a popular TriMet bus stop just south of where Burke was hit and all that warns motor vehicle operators of its presence are signs. There is no paint, lights, or other crossing treatment to speak of. When asked about doing more to facilitate crossings, Kroop explained that ODOT worries not everyone will stop: “A concern is — and this is going to sound bad but I’m going to say it — you’re trading one type of accident [people being hit], for another type of accident [rear-end collisions].”
If anyone would like to talk with Kroop about making Barbur safer, he gave me his phone number and encouraged people to call and ask him questions. (503) 229-5266.
The death of Angela Burke has activated the community and has raised questions about how we choose to balance the movement of motor vehicles with the safety of all road users. The answers might not be easy, but they can’t be harder than living with the consequences of doing nothing.
— See more photos from the event here.