The stretch of the Amherst bike path that meanders along Tonawanda Creek Road is supposed to be dedicated to walkers, runners and cyclists. But the truth is, this “dedicated” path often brings its unprotected pedestrians into very close proximity to fast-moving traffic.
“Where it’s real close to the road, there is no separator,” said Amherst Highway Superintendent Robert N. Anderson.
And that reality was hammered home Sunday when David A. Smith, 53, was accused of leaving the roadway and plowing his motorcycle into several pedestrians on the adjacent path, killing two of them and injuring one. Smith, who is being held without bail, was charged with driving while intoxicated and criminally negligent homicide.
Parts of the Tonawanda Creek path have pedestrians and cyclists sharing the road with vehicles. On other stretches, there’s a much greater distance from the roadway, with dense woods separating path users from the street. But in the section where Smith is accused of killing two women, the winding path runs right alongside Tonawanda Creek Road.
The accident resulted in the deaths of Jocelyn B. Elberson, 25, and senior marathoner Sheila Pelton, 81. It also injured Pelton’s husband, Foster, 79, who suffered multiple fractures and a collapsed lung but is expected to recover. He learned that his wife had died Sunday evening after repeatedly asking for her.
Pat LaDuca, a family friend, said she visited the husband at Erie County Medical Center on Monday. Both of them were grief-stricken.
“We both didn’t speak for a while,” she said. “He was so sad.”
Smith, the motorcycle driver, is also a patient at ECMC, but his condition was not disclosed Monday. Police are still awaiting lab results regarding his blood-alcohol content.
The tragedy of Sunday’s crash brings some renewed anxiety to the hundreds of people who travel the bike path. Since Sunday turned out to be a beautiful and unseasonably warm day, it’s no surprise that pedestrians were hit when the powerful motorcycle left the roadway.
That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that this stretch of the bike path is unsafe, even though it may feel that way to the people who walk it.
Pendleton resident Charlie Porter, one of a number of residents who called 911 after the fatal crash occurred, said he has run several times a week along that stretch of the bike path for about eight years. Whenever he’s running on the road with traffic or on the section of the path that runs within a few feet of Tonawanda Creek Road, he said, he always has a heightened sense of awareness.
A guardrail along the stretch that brings the bike path adjacent to Tonawanda Creek might be useful, Porter said.
“It would at least be a barrier,” he said.
But neither he nor town or police officials recall any frequency of accidents along this part of the path, even though the potential for a serious accident – similar to what occurred Sunday – remains.
Within the last three years, there have been 68 reported car accidents along the entire stretch of Tonawanda Creek Road, most at intersections. Only one incident in 2010 involved that stretch of roadway, said Amherst Police Capt. Patrick M. McKenna. It occurred during the winter when a car was reported to have landed in a ditch, he said.
Anderson said the path sometimes runs right alongside Tonawanda Creek Road because there simply isn’t enough stable land to allow for any buffer. The land nearest the creek is marshy, and the town has encountered recent problems in which the land under the bike path has eroded, creating public safety emergencies for the town.
He also questioned whether additional safety precautions would preclude a drunken driver from causing harm.
Amherst Council Member Guy R. Marlette, liaison to the town’s Traffic Safety Committee, echoed similar sentiments.
“No matter where you are or what precautions you take, if someone on any roadway is going to be driving recklessly or under the influence, all the precautions in the world aren’t going to prevent that,” he said.
Until now, he said, no one has suggested to his committee that the Tonawanda Creek path is unsafe because of the proximity to vehicular traffic. In light of the recent accident, however, he expects someone to recommend that the committee further review the matter.
Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein also said he plans to take up the issue with the Planning Department this week.
Meanwhile, family and friends continue to mourn the loss of Elberson and Pelton. Friends of Pelton described her as an energetic and inspirational person, a breast cancer survivor who walked and ran marathons and half-marathons in her 60s and 70s, and rarely missed a day at the gym even at age 81. A volunteer with the local chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Pelton raised thousands of dollars through the races she participated in as a member of the group’s “Team in Training,” said Executive Director Nancy Hails.
“She was amazing. She really, really was,” Hails said. “I think that we all, when we leave this world, we’d like to leave some legacy behind, and her footmark will forever be with us and our organization.”
LaDuca, a longtime friend and personal trainer, said Pelton and her husband immigrated to the United States from England more than 20 years ago and have three grown children. She met Pelton 17 years ago, when her friend was still recovering from breast cancer treatment and decided she needed to get in better shape.
She was always up for a challenge, coming to the gym to stay fit despite surgeries and the setbacks that come with aging, friends said. She walked her first marathon at 68 and ran her first marathon at 75, Hails recalled. Her only concession to getting older, up until a few years ago, was cutting back to half marathons at her doctor’s request.
“She had more energy, more enthusiasm and more heart than a lot of people have,” Hails said.
As a breast cancer survivor, Pelton was a mentor to newcomers in the “Team in Training” program, providing encouragement through her volunteerism, even after her racing days were over, friends said.
LaDuca said, “It brings tears to my eyes when I hear how many people say, ‘That woman changed my life.’ ”