MIDDLE TOWNSHIP - Cape May County's deadliest highway, Route 47 was the scene of two more deaths Thursday after a horrific head-on collision.
The latest accident occurred at an S-curve in the Green Creek section and claimed the lives of Jeffrey Natale, 19, of Del Haven and N.J. Senior Corrections Officer Stephen Carsten, 29, of Millville. Two others were injured.
More than 30 motorists have died on the curvy two-lane highway in Cape May County since 1999 and there have been other fatalities in Cumberland County. By comparison, less than 20 people have died on the Garden State Parkway in Cape May County during that time
“I’ve seen numerous accidents. People don’t abide by the speed limits and there are no lights. I’ve seen people take that curve at 60 miles per hour. They don’t cut it sharp, they cut it wide. There should be a slow-down there,” said Tony Gray, a Villas resident who works along the road.
A traffic signal has been installed nearby at the intersection with Fulling Mill Road but it has not been activated yet. Residents said it might help slow down traffic near the S-curve.
Christina Witkowsky, 39, who grew up on Route 47 in Dias Creek and now lives along it in Green Creek, said it has gotten worse as driving habitats deteriorate.
“I’ve lived on Route 47 the majority of my life and I think more of it lately is people not paying attention and cell phones. People have changed,” said Witkowsky.
Police said Carsten was traveling at a high rate of speed in his white Chevrolet Malibu. Carsten crossed a double-yellow line to pass a car as he traveled north approaching the S-curve at the Wildwood Water Works, police said.
Carsten, who died in the crash, may have tried to get back in his lane, according to one witness. The officer at Bayside State Prison sideswiped a red Ford Taurus driven by another state Department of Corrections officer, Sgt. James McDonnell, 66, of North Cape May. McDonnell was heading south and reportedly returning from his shift at Bayside State Prison.
After sideswiping McDonnell, police said Carsten remained in the wrong traffic lane and crashed head-on into the silver Infiniti driven by Jeffrey Natale, 19, of the Del Haven section.
Police said Natale and Carsten were killed on impact.
McDonnell and a 17-year-old female in Natale’s car, whose name is being withheld by police, were airlifted to Atlanticare Regional Medical Center City Division in Atlantic City.
McDonnell was released on Friday from ARMC City, according to Jennifer Tornetta a hospital spokeswoman.
She was listed in critical condition Friday evening, Middle Township police said.
Two women in a van driving north in front of Carsten witnessed the entire accident.
“They just hit and pieces went everywhere. It was horrible. There was screaming. The 17-year-old girl was screaming. There was blood everywhere. I did the best I could,” said Cassie Brasch of West Cape May, a passenger in the van.
Brasch said she stayed with McDonnell while her friend Collette Potter-Keltie, who was driving the van, went to help Natale and the girl, who friends described as his girlfriend.
“The car was on the driver’s side,” said Potter-Keltie. “There was just a tremendous amount of screaming. One person was crushed on the bottom of the car. One had fingertips coming out of the sunroof and I held on to them. I grabbed onto the fingertips and said somebody was coming, help was on the way.”
Potter-Keltie said she was driving under the speed limit because she knows how dark the road is. Brasch said she thought the white Malibu was an undercover police officer because it was going fast as it came up behind her.
“He was just flooring it. He went across the double-yellow lines and right there it gets tight. He tried to get back in his lane and couldn’t and that’s when the impact happened. It happened so fast,” said Brasch.
Police were called at 10:04 p.m. Three different medic units and two fire companies also responded.
Natale’s friends, Amanda Cantz of Del Haven and Kathleen Dillon of Villas, put a cross and flowers at the site on Friday afternoon.
“I heard he died last night and I couldn’t even breathe. I broke down in tears,” said Cantz.
Cantz said Natale did not drink and drive. He loved cars, had restored several of them, and was planning to go to auto mechanic school. She said he graduated from Middle Township High School.
“He was a good kid. He did nothing wrong. Everybody else came first to him. For him to die because of some idiot bothers me the most. This is the most dangerous road and no one cares,” Cantz said.
State Senator Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, has been working on the issue. In 2010 he pushed for a study on the many traffic fatalities on the road in Cape May and Cumberland counties and how to make it safer.
Van Drew said some no passing zones were added and a new traffic signal was installed, but not yet turned on, at the intersection of Fulling Mill Road.
“We need to evaluate traffic lights, no passing zones and the shoulders. It’s a narrow road not built for this amount of traffic and speed of traffic. The speeding is one thing but the passing is much worse. It’s not a straight road,” said Van Drew.
Van Drew said he wanted more no passing zones but traffic engineers argued if there were too many people would pass everywhere.
This particular accident happened at a no passing zone.
“At that curve and somebody passing, that’s just pure stupidity. I don’t know how you stop that,” said Cape May County Engineer Dale Foster.
Workers at the Wildwood Water Works recalled numerous accidents at the curve over the years.
“This was bad but last year we had six people get hurt. Straighten out the curve is the only way, said worker Ray Horton.
Witkowsky does not believe the road can be made safer. She said driver behavior is the key.
“I think people just need to pay attention. They’re always in a hurry. They’re racing to get wherever,” she said.
(Staff Writers Braden Campbell and Anjalee Khemlani contributed to this report.)