Tragedies cast spotlight on U.S. 17's dangers

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Tragedies cast spotlight on U.S. 17's dangers

By OMAR FORD<br>Gazette staff writer
Published Monday, March 22, 2004 in The Island Packet  |  1064 Words  |  /BeaufortGazette/local_news

It was a tragic moment that changed two families' lives forever.'
At 6:05 p.m. Jan. 17, 20-year-old David "Cooper" Gasque Jr. was heading north on U.S. 17 en route to The Citadel when his Jeep Wrangler crossed the center line and struck a southbound Oldsmobile Bravado driven by Kassandra Maureen Leek, also 20 and a student at the College of Charleston, who was heading to Jacksonville, Fla., to surf.'
The two were pronounced dead at the scene, leaving their families fighting together to improve the 22-mile stretch of road between Beaufort and Colleton, that has claimed at least nine lives since 2002.'
On Friday, the parents of the accident victims, Col. William Leek, Sherry Leek, Dana Gasque and David Gasque Sr., spoke out about the road and the S.C. Highway Commission's decision Thursday to give state transportation officials the green light to work on plans to widen the suspect stretch of U.S. 17.'
The vote came less than a week after three sailors were killed on the two-lane road after a bus crossed the center line and ran head on into a semi rig.'
"This is the last place I expected to be," said Col. William Leek, Kassandra's father, "talking to a reporter about my daughter's death."'
Both Gasque and Leek were juniors at their respective schools. Gasque was trying to become a religious officer at The Citadel, and Kassandra was pursuing a degree in corporate communications.'
David Gasque Sr. said, "When you talk about Cooper and Kassandra ... those were children that made their parents' hearts swell."'
After hearing about the tragic March 12 bus accident, which emergency medical management teams dubbed a "mass casualty event" because it sent nearly 70 people to hospitals, the families said they were upset.'
Dana Gasque, Cooper's mother, said her first reaction was "not again."'
David Gasque Sr. said this was just one in a series of wake-up calls to local officials that something desperately needs to be done on U.S. 17.'
Nearly 15 years ago, Gasque said "ironically" he in his role as a local surveyor, took part in the Day Willbourne study to widen U.S. 17 north of Beaufort with lanes that are 11 feet wide.'
"I feel guilty," he said. "I knew the dangers of that road."'
But the plan was stalled when state officials ran into difficulties with environmental permitting. The plan called for filling 122 acres of wetlands -- which required special permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.'
Gasque said he was all for protecting the environment -- but not at the cost of his child's life. "Man can recreate wetlands, I can't recreate (Cooper) and (Kassandra)," he said. '
Beaufort County Coroner Curt Copeland, who has been called to the road "countless times" for accidents, said he agreed. While the ecology is important, he said placing ecology over human life "is totally wrong."'
John Hardee, Beaufort County's representative on the six-member Highway Commission, said he will lobby to get the proper permits and financial support to widen U.S. 17 and make it safer. '
But in a statement released hours after the March 12 wreck, the state Department of Transportation said it doesn't have any money to widen U.S. 17.'
"This section of U.S. 17 is not currently funded for any improvements in the State Transportation Improvement Plan," the release states.'
Hardee said he will revisit the issue at the next Highway Commission meeting, on April 15, and see what kind of funding can be secured and what progress has been made so far.'
"To me it's just a matter of time before something else happens," Hardee said.'
Even before the most recent accident, Hardee had been contacted by Rep Catherine Ceips, R-Beaufort, to revisit the widening effort.'
Ceips said she was initially contacted by the Gasque and Leek families to do something about widening the road. The March 12 accident was the final straw.'
"Too often tragedy is the means for change," she said, reflecting on the sudden push to widen U.S. 17.'
Gasque also has spoken in front of the Beaufort County Tax Commission, asking that the project be placed on a proposed 1 cent local sales tax referendum local officials hope to have on the November ballot.'
He said in addition to widening the road, some type of structure should be built to separate the lanes. If there was more room, or a median, then the type of accident Cooper had may have been prevented. He said there were no shoulders to move onto and there was hardly any law enforcement on the road.'
"After the accident, when we travel that road we count the driving infractions," he said.'
People pass without using their turn signal, or go 60 to 80 mph, violating the road's 55 mph speed limit. He said trips generally yield a count of 8 to 10 easily.'
But limited Highway Patrol staff makes it impossible to be in every place, said Trooper Sally Farmer, a spokeswoman for the agency.'
There are 19 road troopers that work in both Beaufort and Jasper counties. '
Of those 19, 10 usually work 12-hour shifts at a time.'
"On a good day, there might be three troopers in Beaufort County," Farmer said. Usually it fluctuates between two and three." '
"Everybody knows we're extremely shorthanded," she said, adding that while U.S. 17 is a bad road, accidents are also caused by people.'
"When you get a collision of this magnitude, everything can't be blamed on the road," she said. "The majority is driver error."'
And even though Gasque's son crossed over the center line, the reasons why are unknown.'
"What happened at the accident we'll never know," Gasque said. "I've given that to the good Lord, I can't carry that."'
In the meantime, the families will continue to write letters to the governor and continue to seek support for the project while dealing with their loss.'
"We don't want another mother to get a call saying she lost her child," Maureen Leek said.