Ithaca, N.Y. — Robin Tropper-Herbel enters the space where the truck hit most directly. She touches a wooden bench in the middle of the room.
The truck had lost control of its brakes and come barreling down East State Street. It slammed into the outer wall of the building, shattering the window and sending rubble, plaster, and bricks flying inside.
Luckily, no one died. But, had someone been in the wrong place at the wrong time, the September 2010 accident could have been fatal, Tropper-Herbel said.
“If someone had been sitting here, they might have been killed because of just the impact of things flying,” Tropper-Herbel said.
The driver of the dump truck, Riney White, was in critical condition after the vehicle rolled over. Two parked cars on the eastern side of the building were crushed under the dump truck.
The room has been refurbished. A new pane of glass has been fitted, along with a new piano and a new coat of paint on the walls. They cover the mess that was made when the dump truck crashed into the Community School of Music and Arts at 330 East State Street.
Tropper-Herbel, the school’s executive director, was reminded of that scare after the tractor-trailer crash turned Simeon’s Restaurant into splinters and claimed the life of a 27-year-old bartender on Friday. Simeon’s is less than 400 feet from CSMA.
It is still unclear what caused the accident on Friday. But past traffic accidents at the intersection of North Aurora Street and East State Street both suggest the possibility of future incidents and raise the question of what can be done to prevent them.
Here’s a brief rundown of the previous accidents at or near the intersection we were able to find:
— On June 16, 1985, an out-of-control furniture moving truck struck the back of a station wagon automobile at that intersection, killing one and injuring five others, according to The Ithaca Journal.
— In 1999, a tractor trailer traveling down East State Street rolled over, smashing onto three cars that were parked alongside Simeon’s and spilling more than 71,000 pounds of garbage onto North Aurora Street, according to The Ithaca Journal.
Witnesses to this accidents said they saw the truck’s brakes smoking, according to Channel 9 WSYR.
That accident had no fatalities. But a woman was found inside one of the cars the tractor trailer had flipped onto. It took Ithaca firefighters more than an hour to free the truck driver, Peter McDermott, from the cab of the vehicle.
McDermott was ticketed for running red lights, having defective brakes, and carrying too heavy a load, according to 9 WSYR.
— There were two similar non-lethal accidents in 1993 and 1997, according to The Ithaca Journal.
The location of the intersection at the foot of East Hill and South Hill poses unique challenges for accident prevention, according to Tom West, director of engineering for the City of Ithaca.
“I don’t know of any other intersection that is at the foot of two hills here in town,” West said.
Some of the problems that come with an intersection located at the base of a hill are inescapable, said Fernando de Aragón, executive director of the Ithaca-Tompkins County Transportation Council.
“We are going to have trucks, so it becomes an issue of how we best manage them,” de Aragón said. “In areas like ours that have no or very few limited access roads, we depend on the state roads.”
Tomas Harrington, general manager of Viva! Cantina, said he can remember about five crashes of varying severity in the vicinity surrounding the Aurora Street and State Street intersection since he moved into town 25 years ago.
The city has taken certain measures, like putting up concrete bollard along the entrance to the Commons in the early 1990s, Harrington said.
But the bollards can only help so much when a large truck, like the car hauler tractor trailer that crashed into Simeon’s on Friday, loses control, de Aragón said.
“A bollard would work well with a car, a truck, an SUV or even a U-Haul type truck,” de Aragón said. “But something this massive, there’s very little that would stop it.”
Correction: The diversion in Candor requires vehicles to take Route 96, instead of Route 96B. Route 96 merges with Route 34 at Spencer Road. Spencer Road then merges with Route 13 at Elmira Road.
There are other safeguards in place. The dual stoplights separating the Green Street intersection with East State Street help, de Aragón said. There is also a diversion located in Candor that requires certain vehicles to take Route 13 into Ithaca instead of Route 96B, moving large trucks away from the steep inclines into downtown.
There are no similar diversions on the way into town from Route 79/East State Street, de Aragón said.
The city has also forbidden certain vehicles exceeding nine tons from traveling on Route 96 between the southern city line and East State Street, as written in the City Code.
The New York State Department of Transportation is compiling information about the roads and is doing inspections, according to Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, D-125.
While Lifton said she is waiting to hear from Mayor Svante Myrick before she officially gets involved, she said that truck inspections, as one particular method of accident prevention, would be very difficult to conduct near Ithaca.
“They can’t just pull trucks over easily,” Lifton said. “They have to be pulled over in a particular place. They spend hours doing these inspections.”
But something needs to be done, said Tropper-Herbel, of the CSMA.
Tropper-Herbel said that it was by mere luck that no one was injured in the 2010 accident.
“There were no people, there were no pedestrians, there were no cars” near the fork in the road that splits by the eastern wall of the Community School of Music and Arts building, Tropper-Herbel said. “It was just chance that the fork was clear.”
There was also the possibility that the building that houses CSMA would not survive the damage. The building, constructed in the 1920s, suffered serious external and internal damage and required an evaluation to determine whether or not it would stand.
“There were all these ‘what ifs?’” Tropper-Herbel said. “Like if it had [crashed] a foot over, the building wouldn’t have stood.”
And Friday’s accident only strengthens her fears.
“Twice in four years is quite frequent,” Tropper-Herbel said. “Probability tells us this will happen again.”