MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Route 47, Cape May County’s deadliest road, was the scene of two more deaths after a head-on collision Thursday night at an S-curve in the Green Creek section.
The latest accident claimed the lives of Jeffrey Natale, 19, of Del Haven, and state Senior Corrections Officer Stephen Carsten, 29, of Millville, and left two others 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 on the road in Cumberland County.
“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 mph. 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 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 habits deteriorate.
“I think more of it lately is people not paying attention and cellphones. People have changed,” Witkowsky said.
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 may have tried to get back in his lane, one witness said. 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 the prison in Maurice River Township.
After sideswiping McDonnell, police said Carsten remained in the wrong lane and crashed head-on into a silver Infiniti driven by Natale.
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 Campus, in Atlantic City.
McDonnell was released from the hospital Friday, AtlantiCare spokeswoman Jennifer Tornetta said. Tornetta could not release information on the 17-year-old, citing a privacy request by the family.
Two women in a van driving north in front of Carsten witnessed the 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,” 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, whom 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 driver of the white Malibu was an undercover police officer because the car 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,” Brasch said.
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 Friday afternoon.
“I heard he died last night, and I couldn’t even breathe. I broke down in tears,” Cantz said.
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 Sen. 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 Fulling Mill.
“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,” Van Drew said.
He said he wanted more no-passing zones, but traffic engineers argued that if there were too many, people would pass everywhere.
This particular accident happened in a no-passing zone.
“At that curve and somebody passing, that’s just pure stupidity. I don’t know how you stop that,” Cape May County Engineer Dale Foster said.
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, worker Ray Horton said.
Witkowsky said she 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.
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