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Texas 31 deaths spur calls for safety changes along road

By Sarah Thomas sthomas@news-journal.com
Jan. 23, 2013 at 11 p.m.


A wreck on Texas 31 that set off a chain of events leading to the deaths of two men Friday has spurred a push for improvements to the stretch often referred to as "Bloody 31."

Witnesses to the wreck and people who work at establishments along Texas 31 west of FM 2767 this week are calling for the road to be widened, a reduction in the speed limit, installation of lighting and addition of a turn lane.

"We've had employees and customers involved in wrecks where they were rear-ended trying to turn in here," said Mike Shelman, a floor manager at Fantasy Ranch Saloon. "It's one of those where you look away for a second and you're already on top of the back of somebody."

Shelman said he and the club's general manager have discussed starting a petition for lowering the speed limit, adding a median and lights to the road outside the club. Though such a drive has long been in mind, he said Friday night's events made it more important than ever.

Sarah Hall was standing nearby when Dulis Rolando Cervantes, 27, and Jason David Albright, 33, were killed. The Tyler men were hit on the darkened stretch of road while trying to help the driver of a car who had just been injured in a rear-end collision.

"The westbound car just came out of nowhere," Hall said of the vehicle that hit Cervantes and Albright.

Car trouble had forced Hall and Tracy Senterfitt to pull into the parking lot of Fantasy Ranch moments earlier. Hall said the location of the first wreck was a major factor in the deaths because of poor visibility and the fact that section of the highway does not have a turn lane.

Senterfitt said the women pulled into the nightclub parking lot because it was the only lighted area they could find.

Hall said Luis Antonio Gauna, the 18-year-old driver of the vehicle that struck the two Good Samaritans, simply didn't have time to react when he came upon the wreck in the dark at highway speed.

"He didn't brake. He didn't swerve to try to miss them. He didn't see them. There are hills on both sides, and this happened at the bottom of the hill," Hall said. "The speed limit should be lowered wherever there are hills and on the whole road."

The speed limit from FM 3053 west to the Smith County line is 55 mph. To the west, the limit is 70 mph.

After what she witnessed, Hall said all her future trips to Tyler would be via Interstate 20.

Jessie Meeks, a phlebotomist at Tyler's Elite Lab Services, said she doesn't have the luxury of avoiding the state highway when she travels to work.

"For my job, I drive on 31 two times, sometimes up to nine times a day, and I know that the speed limit is a factor," Meeks said. "I drive down it quite often, so I know to slow down."

Meeks also was at the scene of Friday's carnage and helped administer CPR to Cervantes and Albright in the minutes after they were hit.

She agreed the highway also needs better lighting.

Brandon Fife, manager of the Country Tavern restaurant, said he blames poor visibility and speed for most of the wrecks he's seen on Texas 31.

"They need to lower the speed limit out here to at least 50 or 55 from FM 3053 to until you pass all the liquor stores," Fife said.

Fife said he would also like to see a turn lane put in because drivers turning into businesses at the bottom of a hill west of FM 2767 are sitting ducks if they come to a stop. That was the reason for the first rear-end wreck Friday night, according to Jean Dark, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety. A vehicle making a left turn was rear-ended by another, she said.

"Once you stop, people are just coming up on you at 70 miles per hour," Fife said. "If there is a petition out there, I'll sure sign it."

Larry Krantz, spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation, said about 8,900 vehicles travel Texas 31 at FM 2767, the corner where the Country Tavern sits, every day.

"We investigate each fatal crash on our system and are constantly looking for ways to make our system safer and easier to use," he said.

For Hall and the other witnesses to Friday's wrecks and deaths, contributing factors are obvious.

"That highway definitely needs lights and it needs to be widened," Hall said. "They could at least put in a turning lane."

Said Krantz: "We are open to any suggestions from the public and welcome those."

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