TARGET 8: 10-year anniversary of girls' deaths highlights lack of guard rails
STURGEON – Families and friends are coming together to celebrate the lives of two girls who lost their lives in a fatal cross over accident. The accident happened ten years ago on October 13.
There are two crosses on US 63 where the accident happened. Lorie Pirtle said the morning started out as a normal school day for her niece Whitney Bentlage and Whitley’s friend Elizabeth Shea.
“The girls were on their way to Merrill University in Moberly,” Pirtle said. “They started out as a regular morning. They were heading to Moberly. They...crossed over into oncoming traffic and hit a semi-truck which ejected both of the girls and they were dead on impact.”
Bentlage was 18; Shea was 20 and had a one-year-old son.
Pirtle said friends and family come out to the crosses in the median of Highway 63 to maintain them, but coming back to where it happened is difficult for them.
“It’s very hard to come out here to see it,” Pirtle said. “But we do it, it needs to be done.”
Every year, the family gets together to remember the girls and have a balloon release at Stephens Lake Park in Columbia.
“We write on the balloons messages or whatever and we send them up," Pirtle said. "We get together to remember the girls so their memory stays alive so we don’t forget them. That’s most important to me that we don’t forget them or anybody else whose lost their lives on this road.”
On Highway 63 in the Moberly area, there are not any barriers that separate one side of the highway from the other side to prevent cross-over accidents.
Pirtle started looking into statistics of accidents before and after guard cables were installed along a highway. She said she contacted MoDOT after she noticed there were fewer fatal accidents along highways with guard cables.
“I proceeded to contact MoDOT,” Pirtle said. “How do we get the cables guards? Do we need to sign a petition, is it a tax thing, do I need to do a GoFundMe account? What is it that we need to do to get these guard cables up? I didn’t get a response back.”
Pirtle said that she doesn’t want another family to go through what her family has had to.
“They do save lives," Pirtle said. "That’s apparent. We can’t save our girls but, at the same time, maybe if we push hard enough, we can get them and it will save someone else's.”
According to MoDOT’s website, guard cables are designed to prevent cars from traveling across the median and hitting on-coming traffic. MoDOT said head-on collisions are some of the most severe and deadly crashes on our roadways.
MoDOT found that on I-70 in 2002, there were 24 fatalities involving cars that crossed over the median. In 2007, a year after guard cables were installed on I-70, there was one fatality involving a cross-median crash.
Elizabeth’s dad Mark Shea said he believes the cable guard would have saved Whitney and Elizabeth's lives.
“If those barriers, had they been there, they would have survived because they stop semi-trucks and I'm sure it would have stopped that car that Whitney was driving and I'm sure they would still be here,” Mark said. “I'm not saying they wouldn't have gotten hurt.”
Ten years after the accident, Mark said he doesn't understand why cable guards haven't been installed in Moberly.
“I don't know why they can't put them on there. They're on every other stretch of road,” Shea said. “It’s a 70 mile per hour road and the median isn’t that big.”
Elizabeth's son Aiden is being raised by his grandmother.
“Like I said earlier, she left a 12-month-old baby,” Mark said. “So she's missed out on all of that. So there’s been an impact. Not a day goes by that doesn't remind you of them. And the family always posts pictures so it's never ending. She's always in the forefront.”
Mark said he doesn’t know what it will take to get cable guards installed.
“Those cables do prevent accidents,” Mark said. “They do save lives. So I wish someone would realize that. I just don't know what it takes to get that going. Lorie's been working diligently to get that someone to listen to her about that cable situation. So sooner or later.”
Pirtle said she also doesn’t know what it will take after she didn’t get a response from MoDOT.
KOMU 8 reached out to MoDOT to find out what factors it considers when determining if cable guards need to be installed. Traffic liaison engineer John Miller says MoDOT looks at cross median crashes, traffic volume and median width.
"We're always analyzing," Miller said, "as far as trying to keep up on that concept because we don't always know when a road may spike or traffic volumes increase to the point where the currents does increase. So every year we are always monitoring, as best we can, is the cross median crass occurrence starting on a road."
Miller says there has been a couple of cross median accidents in the last two years. But ultimately, Miller says, it comes down to money. Guard cables cost about $120 thousand per mile and $10 thousand per mile to maintain each year. Installing guard cables along highway 63 from Columbia to Moberly would cost about $4 million.
"We have a lot of other interests and needs across our state but a high concern also," Miller said.
Miller says guard cables must go through their prioritization process along with other work that needs to be done on Missouri roadways.
Miller said MoDOT is still waiting for the crash data from 2016 to be complete to analyze it.
Pirtle said she doesn't want Bentlage and Shea to be forgot or other families to go through the same thing.
“I don’t know, I still don’t know,” Pitle said. “My next step is I want to see cable guards going up. If it takes me ten more years, I’ll keep doing it, I’ll keep pursuing it until I see cable guards up.”