Hundreds of votive candles flickered on a North Bergen sidewalk across the street from Union City High School last week, where two teenagers were killed on March 5 by a car whose driver was allegedly speeding and went off the road.
The victims were Bryan Rodriguez, 17, a student at Union City High School, and Noel Herrera, 16, a student at Cliffside Park Middle School, both pronounced dead at the scene. A third teen, Manuel Sanchez, 17, was transported to Jersey City Medical Center, where he was treated for multiple fractures of his legs and other injuries.
The alleged driver, Eric Patterson, 23, of Jersey City, was arrested and charged with two counts of death by auto in the second degree and one count of assault by auto in the fourth degree, as well as speeding, reckless driving, and driving with a suspended license.
According to Sgt. Bruce Miller, the vehicle was moving at an estimated 74 miles per hour, based upon physical evidence at the scene, although Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez cautioned that the investigation is still ongoing and the speed is still unconfirmed.
The speed limit in that area, where one side of the road is North Bergen and the other is Union City, is 25 miles per hour. North Bergen Police Chief Robert Dowd, a former fatal accident investigator, called the crash “Without a doubt one of the most horrific scenes we’ve seen collectively in our careers.”
“Kennedy Boulevard is an old road. It was a road that was made for horses, wagons. At that point it was safe.” – Mayor Nicholas Sacco
The vehicle, a silver 2004 Infiniti G35 allegedly driven by Patterson, was proceeding north on Kennedy Boulevard.
As the car approached 26th Street, “It swerved to avoid cars stopped at the red light,” according to Hudson County Sheriff Frank Schillari. “It crossed over the southbound lanes and mounted the sidewalk, striking three teenagers. The car then drove into the bench, went airborne, and crashed against the wall of 2625 Kennedy Blvd. apartment building, and came to a rest wedged between a tree and a wall of the building.”
Toxicology reports are still being run to determine if alcohol was a factor in the crash.
Charges against Patterson may be upgraded once the investigation is complete, said Suarez. Prior to the accident Patterson had already racked up a significant record of driving suspensions and summonses, officials said.
He is reportedly being held on $1 million bail.
A dangerous road
The incident is sadly reminiscent of the circumstances of November 2014, when a car heading south on Kennedy jumped the curb between 31st and 32nd Streets and struck two brothers as they were walking home from a movie. The older brother, 20 years old, died in the hospital weeks later. Speed was believed to be a contributing factor in that crash.
Freeholder Anthony Vainieri recently called for the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders to ask the county to improve and expand an ongoing plan to have county engineers analyze Kennedy Blvd from end to end and recommend changes to make the roadway safer for pedestrians and motorists. The current plan, which is funded by a $3 million grant from the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, addresses spots known to be unsafe along the Boulevard.
“The idea is to expand and enhance this plan by instructing county engineers to conduct a review of this road from the most southern tip in Bayonne to the end of the road in North Bergen, and … to meet with designated members of each municipality individually to address their trouble spots,” said Vainieri. He also asked the county to call on PSE&G to upgrade the lighting system on Kennedy Boulevard.
“Kennedy Boulevard is an old road,” pointed out North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco. “It was a road that was made for horses, wagons,” and it winds along the cliffs.
He added, “At that point it was safe. Today it’s a road that has a lot of turns and would not be built the way it is now if things could be done all over again.”
Chief Dowd noted that the police departments of North Bergen and Union City, along with the sheriff’s department, routinely conduct traffic enforcement not only on Kennedy Boulevard but throughout the towns.
In fact, “In the last two months alone, North Bergen Police Department has issued over 3,000 motor vehicle summonses for violations,” he said.
The challenge is in getting individuals to respect the law and drive the legal speed limit.
“People need to slow down on township roads. Kennedy Boulevard is a residential boulevard. This is not a state highway where people can traverse the roadway at excessive speeds,” said Dowd. “We’re talking about a 25-mile-an-hour roadway and quite frankly, people cannot operate their vehicles in such a reckless manner and expect anything but tragic results.
“Kennedy Boulevard goes through four different communities, from Bayonne all the way up north through North Bergen,” said Union City Police Chief Richard Molinari. “Union City is the most densely populated community in the country. Nobody should take it upon themselves to drive our roads carelessly and recklessly, putting others at danger.”
“We’re doing our best to get people to slow down,” added Union City Mayor Brian Stack. “Not only on Kennedy Boulevard, but in general, in all of Union City, we’ve installed hundreds, over the last 10 years, of new stop signs, new intersections, new traffic lights. And you can do all that, but you’ve got to get people to abide by it.”
Rodriguez and Herrera, the two teenagers killed, were known to be best friends since childhood. Rodriguez played on the freshman football team and loved to dance. Herrera was a skateboard enthusiast.
Grief counselors were provided in the schools for students who knew them or were affected by the tragic loss. Several vigils were held at the makeshift memorial on Kennedy Boulevard. Hundreds turned out in their honor, including relatives, friends, and strangers.
An online fundraiser was established by one of the teens’ friends, Enissa Ivonne, to collect money toward their funerals. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than $16,000 had been collected toward a goal of $20,000. To contribute visit https://www.gofundme.com/6jsz35yc.
“As the boys were best friends since childhood and both left this Earth together, the parents will be holding a joint service and burial for them,” wrote Ivonne on the site. “However, no information regarding those services has been established or released yet, as in not all relatives have arrived to say their final goodbyes.”
Check the site for updates.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.