Column: The Beach Road and bad memories
Published 11:31 am Saturday, April 6, 2019
Tragedy unfolded Monday afternoon on North Virginia Dare Trail near the intersection with Maynard Street in Kitty Hawk.
As a family group of six walked north along the southbound shoulder of the Beach Road, a pickup truck traveling north crossed over to the other side of the road and struck them from behind, fatally injuring two adults and wounding a child. At this point, investigation by the Kitty Hawk Police Department seems to be pointing toward the driver either falling asleep behind the wheel or experiencing some type of medical incident.
The couple killed that afternoon, Alan and Holly Nicolette of Mechanicsville, Va., a businessman and teacher, respectively, were here on vacation with their family. Two young children are among their survivors and a GoFundMe campaign has been set up to help support the children and family members who will now raise them.
As I have read countless online tributes to how well-loved the Nicolettes were and how much they will be missed, my mind can’t help but be drawn to another incident from over 20 years ago. The circumstances leading up to this incident and the cause were completely different from what happened to the Nicolettes, but the end result? Maybe not so much.
In last full week of August 1998, the area was battening down for the impending arrival of Hurricane Bonnie. The start of what would be my senior year in high school was delayed until the following week. If you haven’t been here before a hurricane, it just feels different – the air, the sense of urgency, the waiting – both tension and a feeling of togetherness at the same time. Perhaps difficult to explain, but all too familiar.
In the wee hours of the morning of the 26th, a young man named Scott set off on bicycle from a Beach Road restaurant and bar in Kill Devil Hills after a night out to go home. He had done it many times before, figuring it safer than driving. This time, however, he hit a pothole in the road while crossing to the other side and fell off his bike.
Meanwhile, a taxi driver was also traveling along that same road. She had a passenger in the car with her and that person heard her ask “what is that?” indicating she saw something in the road, yet she continued on and ended up running over Scott as he lay in the street.
Investigators put together that he had fallen due to the pothole. We’ll never know Scott’s version of events because he did not make it, dying at age 22 shortly after being struck.
Scott had been drinking, which likely contributed to a delayed response getting out of the road after falling. Although someone close to the taxi driver came forward right after and alleged that she was known to use drugs and was likely under the influence at the time of the accident, no criminal charges were pursued against her.
I had only known Scott peripherally; we had some mutual acquaintances and I had been friends with his younger brother Brian for a few years. While I didn’t experience much of the immediate aftermath of his death directly, I saw it first-hand later on.
Several years after that fateful night, Brian and I started dating, eventually marrying. I got to know his family very well over the years and let me tell you – grief does not end on a timeline. Brian and Scott’s mother Judy was impacted by her middle son’s death until the day she herself died in 2011 of esophageal cancer.
Family members said that Judy, understandably, was never the same after Scott died. I had not known her before that, but it was easy to tell that something terrible had happened in her life. Judy was a kind-hearted person, very compassionate, but almost always seemed to carry sadness and a sense of “what if” and “what could have been” around with her. Her continuing grief was palpable. And who can blame her? She lost her son unexpectedly and traumatically and was never able to say goodbye.
Even something as simple as seeing a bicycle would visibly shake her. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she came to visit one time after Brian and I moved in together and she saw that he had a bike. If it was outside the confines of home, she was always very anxious for Brian’s safety and became convinced something bad would happen to him, too.
Why do I bring all this up over 20 years later? Because it still resonates. While Brian has largely come to terms with what happened, I know he wishes Scott was still here, especially for life events big and small: our marriage, Brian finally going into business for himself, the deaths of their mother, aunts and grandmother. I know Brian would have wanted his input on the care of their oldest brother Dana, who is autistic, after Judy died. Scott was more than a brother to Brian, they were close friends.
We can “what if” the situation until the end of time, but the outcome of that night won’t be any different. What if he would have left five minutes earlier or later? What if he would have called someone for a ride or just stayed home that night? What if, instead of continuing along, that taxi driver would have actually stopped when she saw something in the road? What if the Beach Road would have been better lit? Would Scott have seen the pothole or would the driver have recognized that there was a person laid out in the roadway? It is too late for all of that.
What it’s not too late for, however, is for people to step back and realize the seriousness of these situations. Some may not be preventable, but many around here are. The feelings people are having right now for the Nicolettes, who by all accounts were doing exactly what they were supposed to as pedestrians, shouldn’t stop at empathy. Yes, this specific circumstance is by all appearances a horrible accident, but we can also take this as an opportunity for a wakeup call for all of us when it comes to drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and road safety.
I drove to that spot near Maynard and NC 12 in Kitty Hawk on Wednesday to look at the crosses that are now on the side of the road. It really only sank in later that I had likely walked the same path as the family that was hit. I had parked at the Maynard Street access and walked over. For those unfamiliar with that stretch of the Beach Road in Kitty Hawk, let me tell you – it is not pedestrian-friendly. Shoulders are extremely narrow and there’s really nowhere else to go except up on the dunes or on people’s property. Yes, I know, part of that is right of way, but most are hesitant to do that.
Think a bike path up there would help? Maybe, but there is so little terrain left up there on the oceanside, it would have to go on the other side of the road, which is lined with houses. Even then, I am positive that I am not the only one who has seen drivers passing on the right further south in Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head, using the walking and bike path as an auxiliary roadway. How many drivers have we seen get way too close to pedestrians and cyclists because they “need to get off the road,” even in cases where they are following the rules? Even worse, drivers and passengers who throw things – both objects and insults – at these pedestrians and cyclists as they pass them by. Yes, it happens.
Pedestrians also have to do their part. Again, the Nicolettes were doing as they were supposed to: walking off the road, headed north facing southbound traffic. Though there may be mitigating circumstances involving health, this is a case where the driver (or whatever he was experiencing) was responsible. Having said that, I cannot even begin to count the number of times a pedestrian has darted out in front of me while I was driving on the Beach Road. I’m not talking about crosswalks (although there have been plenty of cases of people walking out into them without even checking to make sure traffic has stopped). I’m talking about people walking along the side of the road and suddenly taking a hard left into the street. I’m talking about people – including children – who run out into the road from their driveways, seemingly oblivious to potential danger. I’m talking about those who set up outdoor games at the edges of their driveways, almost always meaning a basketball, horseshoe, volleyball or whatever – along with someone running to grab it – ends up in the road.
So again, why am I bringing all this up? Because there is a need for all of us to collectively do something about it. We cannot leave it all up to the towns or state or DOT to deal with it or say it’s not our problem to fix – it is. But there’s no one-size-fits all way to fix this. Like it or not, the Beach Road is jammed with what seems like more cars, people and houses that ever before and construction is not stopping. Even in areas where it seems like nothing else can be built, houses are being torn down and replaced with even larger versions which means, you guessed it – more cars and people, all jockeying for use of that roadway.
What can we do, starting right now? Make sure we’re not part of the problem.
Drivers, use caution and common sense and follow the rules of the road. Pedestrians and cyclists are going to be there, especially on the Beach Road, so just accept it and act accordingly. Don’t assume they see you. If you’re like Ricky Bobby and “wanna go fast,” head west and get on the bypass. And whatever you do, don’t pass on the right and don’t text and drive – both are ridiculously negligent. I think we all too often forget that we’re behind the wheel of a machine that can cause irreparable damage and even death. Maybe it’s time we remember that.
Pedestrians, stay out of the road except in designated crosswalks and even then, for your own sake, stay on the side of the road until you see that both sides of traffic have stopped. Same as I said to drivers: don’t assume they see you. Between tons of cars, pedestrians, houses, cyclists, fences, shrubbery, palm trees, giant trash cans, people going in and out of driveways and more going on – and it’s only going to get busier from here – it is sometimes difficult to tell who wants to cross the road and who’s just moseying along, enjoying the ocean air. Another thing: please look up from your phones. Know what’s going on around you. Do your part for your own safety. The Beach Road is not one giant boardwalk – it’s a highway.
This would also be a good time to call on rental companies and hotels to educate their guests about the potential dangers they will face along the Beach Road. Since most visitors are going to head to the Atlantic, no matter where they lay their heads at night, it should be just as standard as providing information about beach safety and rip currents. Information should be provided about where designated beach accesses, dune crossovers and crosswalks are and how to use them. It sounds elementary and many may ignore it, but let’s do what we can to help everyone get back home safely.
We need to stop acting like this is an either/or problem. It’s not the drivers or the pedestrians, it’s both. Both groups bear responsibility for their safety and the safety of others and both groups need to act like it.
Theresa Schneider is general manager of The Coastland Times. She may be reached at email@example.com.