SOMERS POINT — One man was killed and two others were seriously injured when a car veered off Shore Road early Thursday and struck the front of a crowded Somers Point bar.
Kevin Botta, 33, of Somers Point, who died in the accident, was a passenger in the car that crashed into Gregory’s Restaurant and Bar, Atlantic County Prosecutor Ted Housel said. Botta worked at the bar as a doorman and was the father of two young girls.
The force of the crash dislodged a fire hydrant that, which struck Joseph Higbee, 26, of Northfield, who was standing outside the bar. Higbee was airlifted to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, City Campus, in Atlantic City. His condition was upgraded from serious to fair Thursday night, a spokeswoman said.
The driver of the car, identified by Housel as Antonio Vargas, 21, of Somers Point, was also airlifted to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, City Campus. He was in critical condition Thursday night, hospital spokeswoman Jenna DeCiccio said.
Both Higbee and Vargas are in the trauma intensive care unit, she said.
Housel said Vargas’ vehicle was traveling south on Shore Road at a high rate of speed when the car struck the landmark bar at the corner of Delaware Avenue.
Bar owner Gregory Gregory said the car that hit his restaurant shook the building and “sounded like a thunderclap to wake you up from sound sleep.”
Customers at Charlie’s Bar & Restaurant, just one block away, heard the car Botta was in speed by, and later told Gregory “it sounded like a race car” just before impact.
Botta’s autopsy results show he died from multiple traumatic injuries including extensive facial and head injuries, said Atlantic County Medical Examiner Dr. Hydow Park.
Housel said no charges have been filed as of Thursday night. The accident remains under investigation and police are still looking for witnesses.
Botta leaves behind two young girls, ages 5 and 11.
“I don’t know what is going to happen,” said James Botta, Kevin’s father, about his granddaughters, adding he planned to come to Somers Point from his Connecticut home today.
Kevin Botta raised the children by himself, James Botta said.
James Botta said he saw his son for the last time last weekend when he came to Somers Point to visit him and his granddaughters for the recent holiday.
He said Kevin grew up in Absecon and he had many personal ties in the area that made him a friend to everyone. “He was somebody everybody loved,” he said.
“Unfortunately, he was gone too soon,” he said on the phone.
Gregory said Botta worked part-time as a door host for the popular local bar and restaurant.
“It’s a very tragic situation,” he said “It’s a tragedy for the families and obviously the people injured.”
Gregory said it was also sad for the “community of young people” in Somers Point because Botta was a well-known and well-loved resident.
“As ludicrous as it sounds, we’re in the fun business,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like fun right now.”
Gregory said Botta will always be remembered as an outgoing, fun-loving man who was a great father.
He said Botta — who people called “Joe Millionaire” because of his striking resemblance to the star of the television show — was not the “standard door checker” when he worked. Botta knew patrons personally and made sure everyone was safe and comfortable in the bar, he said.
Gregory’s Restaurant and Bar, located at 900 Shore Road, sustained damage from the crash.
A door located on the corner, near the intersection was struck, but the rest of the building was unscratched from the 1 a.m. incident.
The bar, a Somers Point landmark, opened in 1946.
Robert Woods, a contractor from Somers Point, said he volunteered Thursday morning to fix the damaged door as a gesture of support.
“It’s called Somers Point,” Woods, known locally as “Uncle Woody,” said. “Everybody does that. We’re a big family.”
Woods arrived at the bar at about 6 a.m. Thursday morning to help restore the damage.
Gregory said he was grateful that more than 30 requests came in from local carpenters and contractors to repair the building, but it would take a lot more than a few nails and wood beams to fix a community that lost one of its own.
“We’re going into our 66th year, we’ve had tragedies come and go,” he said. “But this one hit us deep in the heart.”
Nearby businesses were without power early Thursday as a result of the crash.
Power was restored overnight to most homes and, at peak power outage, Atlantic City Electric reported 1,187 customers were without power in Somers Point, said the company’s spokeswoman Sandra May.
Somers Point Mayor Jack Glasser was at the site at about 6:15 a.m. to learn more details about the crash from rescue workers and electric officials working to repair and reopen the roadway.
About 100 people, friends of the victims and strangers, commented about the accident on the Press of Atlantic City’s Web page.
“Kevin was such a great friend to many, and no one should have to suffer due to the recklessness of a careless person,” one woman posted. “Life is too short and valuable! Kevin’s poor girls!”
By Thursday night, a newly installed frame lined the damaged door. Inside, the mood was like any other bar on a Thursday night, and it seemed like few of the victims’ friends were present.
Thomas Cain of Parma, Ohio, originally from Linwood, said he knows Vargas and there is “no way” he was driving the car Thursday morning.
“He would show off, but never be an (idiot) and crash his car,” Cain said.
His friend, John Roy of Egg Harbor Township, said Vargas liked to drive fast, “but never really reckless, like that.”
“All I can say is ‘Rest in peace, Kevin,’ and good luck to his family,” Roy said.
Staff writer Elaine Rose contributed to this report.
Authorities seek information
Anyone who witnessed the crash or has other information is asked to call the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Fatal Collision Unit at 609-909-7666 or Somers Point police at 609-927-6161.
Contact Caitlin Dineen: