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As demand for roadside markers for accident victims multiplies, officials enforce time limits

This memorial sign was dedicated to Joanna Beth Chastain, who died in a fiery crash in 2008. More than 500 Tampa Bay families have requested memorial markers from the DOT since 1998.

MARISSA LANG | Times

This memorial sign was dedicated to Joanna Beth Chastain, who died in a fiery crash in 2008. More than 500 Tampa Bay families have requested memorial markers from the DOT since 1998.

Donna Chastain wants to forget the trooper outside her front door, explaining how her daughter's car was found in flames. She wants to forget the burned rubber and twisted metal, the bodies charred beyond recognition.

She wants to, but she can't. "I have horrible memories from that day,'' she said.

Last month, Chastain took steps to ensure Tampa Bay motorists won't forget, either. She requested a memorial marker from the Department of Transportation. Beyond a black-and-white marker, she wants motorists to see pain and lives lost. She wants them to slow down, buckle up, be safe.

It is a message that has resonated so pervasively throughout the Tampa Bay area that more than 500 families have requested roadside memorials since the program started in 1998.

The markers have become so prevalent that state and local officials are enforcing time limits of one year on state roads, and a few months in some counties and cities.

"There are a lot of families that want to see their loved ones memorialized," DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said.

This is a troubling reality for survivors such as Chastain, who want their message, and memories of loved ones, to live on.

"The signs make people realize,'' Chastain said, ' "if I'm not careful, that could be me.' "

Rather than waiting for families to call, state transportation officials have taken a proactive approach in recent years: Roadside maintenance workers seek out the families of those memorialized with homemade shrines, offering them a state marker instead.

As more signs go up, more requests come in. More than 1,000 fatal accidents have occurred in the past three years in Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

Hillsborough County runs its own program, modeled after the state's. It, too, provides uniform memorials free of charge to families and builds them on county roads. Unlike the DOT's policy, Hillsborough's allows only blood relatives to apply for the memorials and must check with nearby property owners before installing them. The memorials are left up for one year.

In Pinellas County, different cities have different procedures, separate from the DOT's. In Largo, for example, markers are requested through the Police Department's Victim's Assistance Office. These markers will be removed after six months and given to the family. In Clearwater, family members who want a marker must pay the $300 cost.

In 1998, the first year the state-made memorial markers were available, only eight families in the Tampa Bay area sought one. Today, officials said, they might get that many requests a month.

There are about 25 in Pasco County, 70 in Hernando, 120 in Pinellas and 290 in Hillsborough.

The $44 markers feature a 15-inch white aluminum circle atop a 5-foot metal post. The name of the deceased is written in black type under the words "Drive safely in memory of."

"It's a universal message of safety," said Donna Chastain. "When you see them all lining the road, it's a reminder that these aren't just symbols."

The trooper standing outside Donna Chastain's door on that November night in 2008 said her daughter, Joanna, 19, had drifted off State Road 60, over-corrected and lost control of her Acura sedan. The car hit the center median and spun into a utility pole just east of Mud Lake Road. Both the pole and car caught fire.

Passenger Christopher Richards, 20 was pronounced dead at the scene. Backseat passenger Andrew Santilli of Valrico was critically injured. Joanna was burned beyond recognition. Her seat belt had been incinerated.

"They showed me pictures of the people in the car and we really did wonder if it was her," Donna Chastain said.

In the weeks that followed, friends and families made a memorial for Joanna and Chris.

On Aug. 19, state transportation workers replaced the white cross, Mardi Gras beads, stuffed animals, photos and candles with a standard roadside marker.

When she saw the new sign for the first time, Chastain pulled to the side of the road, waded through overgrown grass and stopped just feet from the white plaque. Cars whizzed by as Chastain began to cry.

"It's like she's standing right there," Chastain recalled days later, tears streaming down her face. "She's standing there as a warning sign for all of us."

Marissa Lang can be reached at mlang@sptimes.com.

As demand for roadside markers for accident victims multiplies, officials enforce time limits 09/12/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 13, 2011 12:37am]
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