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Apr 11, 2018 10:54 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Questions Loom Following Fatal Accident On County Road 39

While making a delivery to Southampton Masonry on CR39 early Thursday morning, Joseph Lynn McAlla, 63, of Clifford, Pennsylvania was struck and killed by an unidentified driver who fled the scene.
Apr 11, 2018 12:12 PM

A truck driver from northeastern Pennsylvania was killed by a hit-and-run driver on County Road 39 early Thursday morning, April 5, and, a week later, Southampton Town Police still have not made an arrest and are offering few details about the investigation.

Joseph Lynn McAlla, 63, of Clifford, Pennsylvania, was preparing to make a delivery to Southampton Masonry, police said, when he parked his truck in a westbound lane and attempted to cross the road at 2:30 a.m. When Mr. McAlla got out of his truck, he was struck by the driver of a vehicle heading eastbound, who fled the scene.

Asked multiple times since the accident if police had any leads or had made any arrests in the case, Lieutenant Susan Ralph repeatedly declined to comment on the investigation.

Police have remained mum about whether they have any information about the type of vehicle involved, how fast it was going at the time of the accident, or any other information that could lead to an arrest—fearing that publicly sharing the information could hinder the investigation.

“We are currently dealing with this horrible situation,” Bradley McAlla, a relative of the truck driver, said in an email on Thursday. “He was a truck driver his whole life, not merely a ‘delivery’ driver.

“Hopefully, the person responsible is caught,” he added.

The accident, which closed the roadway for more than five hours during Thursday’s morning rush hour and created massive congestion for miles in both directions, once again raised questions about what can be done to improve traffic flow along the major artery to the South Fork when major accidents occur.

Over the past 10 years, similar accidents have sparked debates and studies into traffic and safety concerns along County Road 39, including an emergency response system used to notify drivers of accidents by text and email. But none of the solutions has been completely successful, as the deadlock following last week’s accident demonstrated.

Monique Wisniewski-Santana, who lives in a residential neighborhood behind Southampton Masonry, said on Friday morning that she walked down her driveway at 7 a.m. on Thursday and saw that the truck that Mr. McAlla was driving was still parked in front of Behind the Fence, a shop on County Road 39 locally recognized for selling large dinosaur statues and other sculptures. She posted on Facebook that Mr. McAlla’s body could be seen lying in the eastbound lanes.

The location of the truck told police that after Mr. McAlla parked it, he got out and was struck by the eastbound vehicle.

The current fatality aside, questions still loom about the mechanics of how police investigate accidents on County Road 39 and the gridlock that ensues whenever the roadway needs to be shut down. Police closed all lanes of County Road 39 for five and a half hours to allow the Suffolk County medical examiner’s office and State Police to conduct investigations at the scene. Traffic was redirected away from the scene, bleeding out into side streets and causing a more than two-hour delay as far west as Eastport. The road reopened just after 8 a.m.

It wasn’t until nearly three hours after the accident occurred when a warning was issued over the town’s email and text message alert system, notifying drivers that County Road 39 was closed, and asking drivers to find alternate routes. In an area where there are only two roads in and two roads out, the only open thoroughfare was Montauk Highway.

On Thursday, Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki said he was aware of the traffic backups, noting that Suffolk County Police helicopters were in the air above the scene to give indications of traffic patterns and delays.

While traffic can be a hassle, Chief Skrynecki said, the top priority at most accidents is to render first aid and then investigate the causes of the accident, especially in a case where criminal charges might be filed. In the case of the accident on Thursday, he said, the top priority was to preserve the scene and collect evidence.

“We can’t rush that,” Chief Skrynecki said. “We move it as expediently as we can, but we also have to prioritize our goal, and our first goal is to investigate and make a sound case.”

Fatal accidents also require someone from the medical examiner’s office to travel from Hauppauge to the East End. According to officials, a medical examiner was notified of the accident at 3:50 a.m. on Thursday—one hour and 20 minutes after it occurred.

“[The] medical examiner investigator had been instructed specifically by the Southampton Town Police detective not to leave the office until around 6:30 a.m., because the State Police had a substantial amount of data gathering and measuring at the scene before they would be ready for us,” Abdul Sada, a spokesman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, said on behalf of the medical examiner’s office.

The medical examiner arrived at the scene of the accident at 7:03 a.m., according to Mr. Sada, and the body was removed from the scene within 45 minutes.

The medical examiner’s office is roughly 44 miles from the scene, and it can take about 45 minutes to get to the East End on a regular day—without congestion.

On Thursday morning, things were delayed because of the heavy traffic leading toward the scene.

“The medical examiner had difficulty getting to the scene,” Chief Skrynecki said. “We sent a police car to meet the medical examiner and escort them through the backed-up traffic to expedite the medical examiner’s arrival.”

Chief Skrynecki said he is looking at possible ways to be able to get the medical examiner to accident scenes on the East End more quickly. Two solutions he said he is looking at include stationing a squad car in an area that the medical examiner can get to more easily and be transported to the scene, or even airlifting the medical examiner to the scene by helicopter.

“These are all concerns I have as a new chief,” he said. “A fresh pair of eyes can help.”

Even though the work at the scene was complete, and the roads were re-opened by 8 a.m., the Town Police did not send an update over the emergency system until 9:08 a.m. stating that the scene was cleared.

Chief Skrynecki did not say why there was a lag between events and the notification system.

“The roads were re-opened at 8 a.m.,” Chief Skrynecki said. “We know that is a long time. We are looking at ways to see if we can expedite this a little quicker, but I can’t do that at the expense of the investigation.

“Obviously, five hours is better than nine hours,” he added, referring to a fatal accident in the summer of 2013, in which County Road 39 was closed between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming said she has offered assistance in setting up future discussions between the county and the Town Police to try and nail down protocol to help get traffic moving whenever an accident occurs on County Road 39.

Many members of Ms. Fleming’s staff were also stuck in traffic on Thursday because they travel from points west of Southampton to get to her office in Sag Harbor.

While she was disappointed with the traffic jam created, she said, there was not much that could be done to lessen the impact.

“This is a fatality,” Ms. Fleming said. “Someone lost their life. There is evidence on the street, and the person responsible left the scene. The very first priority has to be treating the crime scene as professionally as possible … to find out who is responsible and make an arrest.”

Southampton Town Director of Transportation Tom Neely said on Tuesday that the town and county have explored ways to dampen the impact that a single accident on either one of the two main arteries to the East End can have, but noted it is a difficult situation.

“CR 39 carries probably 70 percent of the traffic onto the South Fork,” Mr. Neely said. “Anytime you have a problem on CR 39, it’s going to have a dramatic impact on traffic.”

Mr. Neely said that about 10 years ago the county looked into spending $60 million on a road-widening project in which the county would acquire property adjacent to the roadway utilizing the eminent domain law in an effort to alleviate traffic problems, but decided to back-burner the project because, he said, it “creates a very expensive situation.”

Mr. Neely also acknowledged the absence of shoulders along the roadway which contributes to drivers speeding in the 35 mph zone.

“I think more street lights are needed around that bend,” Ms. Wisniewski-Santana said in a message to The Press this week, referring to the area where last week’s accident occurred. “[Mr. McAlla] was wearing all dark clothes but, more importantly, it’s the speed that people do on that road. NO ONE does 35. Ever. We need more police presence on the road at all hours.”

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