Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Public safety

Chamberlain High student, 17, dies amid daily chaos along Busch Boulevard

TAMPA

Traffic chokes all four lanes. Vehicles turn the center turn lane into an illegal passing zone. Students dart across traffic, ignoring the crosswalks the city has tried to make safer.

The stretch of Busch Boulevard outside Chamberlain High School becomes a maelstrom of impatient drivers and inattentive teens whenever school starts and lets out.

It was amid this chaos that 17-year-old Alexis Miranda lost her life Tuesday morning. The Chamberlain High student was struck and killed by a vehicle while crossing Busch.

"She was a beautiful soul," her mother, Valerie Jones, said at a candlelight vigil for her daughter Tuesday night. "She touched a lot of people's lives."

The teenager was hit about two blocks west of the N Boulevard intersection around 7:15 a.m., according to Tampa police. Her grandmother was driving her to school, family said, when they got stuck in traffic. So the grandmother let Miranda and her friends out in the middle of Busch.

Miranda was walking across the Busch center turn lane, police said, when she was struck by a 1992 Cadillac driving west in the center turn lane. She died at the scene.

The driver of the Cadillac was identified as Belovedofgod Chiza Ndegwa, 33. He stayed at the scene and spoke to investigators. Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis described Ndegwa as "distraught."

Miranda was a nontraditional student who transferred to Chamberlain High after a rocky time at Gaither High. She came to Chamberlain to fulfill her goals. She was enrolled in a daytime GED course and wanted to become a cosmetologist.

"She was on the right track," her mother said.

Ndegwa is from Port Republic, Md. His driving history from Maryland was not available Tuesday. But Virginia records show a long history of traffic infractions, including driving with a suspended license, failure to obey highway lane markers and multiple speeding tickets.

In 2006, he was found guilty in absentia for doing 50 in a 35 mph zone. In 2014, he was found guilty of doing 69 in a 45 mph zone. Ndegwa could not be reached for comment.

JOSIE HOLLINGSWORTH | Times

A map of the Chamberlain High School/Busch Boulevard intersection

The driver was neither cited nor charged Tuesday. Nor did police assign fault, or say how fast Ndegwa was driving. A police spokeswoman said one question investigators will try to answer is how long Ndegwa drove in the turn lane.

When the investigation is complete, Tampa police will turn those findings over to the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office, which will decide whether charges are merited.

The speed limit on Busch is 45 mph. The closest crosswalk to Chamberlain High on Busch is at the intersection with N Boulevard. The center turn lane there has no medians.

Every morning, say the employees at Air National, a nearby air conditioning business, conditions are dangerous. Often, impatient drivers caught in standstill traffic will swerve into the turn lane and barrel down Busch.

"Traffic rules don't apply in Tampa," said employee Jeremy Balthazar, 31.

Kimberly Paramore's 14-year-old son attends Chamberlain High School. She said he prefers the five-minute walk to class over riding the bus, but she's not sure she'll let him make the trek anymore. The drivers passing by the high school seem reckless, the mother said.

"Are they paying attention?" Paramore said. "They're on their cell phones, they're texting."

Motorists aren't the only ones that need to pay attention, however. As school let out around 3 p.m. Tuesday, a Tampa Bay Times reporter observed groups of students scrambling across Busch to the center turn lane, waiting for gaps in oncoming traffic.

Michael Nilio, 19, waited for his bus outside the school as students crossed the street back and forth.

"Some students, they would almost get hit," he said, "and they think it's funny."

The city has long struggled with young pedestrians dying on its busiest arteries. Two 15-year-old Middleton High School students have been killed while trying to dash across Hillsborough Avenue's six lanes. Shenika Davis died in 2011. In 2014, it was Norma Velasquez-Cabrera.

In January, the City Council approved spending $306,700 to install the stoplight and crosswalk on the 2500 block of E Hillsborough near the Meridian Pointe Apartments.

Tragedy has also spurred the city to focus on making Busch Boulevard safer. In February 2013, 8-year-old Jayla Shubbar was hit by a sport utility vehicle while trying to cross Busch to go to the store with her 12-year-old sister. That was about 1½-miles from where Miranda died, on the other side of Interstate 275.

Jayla's death prompted a discussion at the Tampa City Council, where members said making Busch Boulevard safer for pedestrians was an urgent priority. At that time, city and state officials said they had already worked to make Busch safer, spending $1 million to fill in gaps in sidewalks, make crosswalks more visible and install pedestrian count-down signals.

Two pedestrians have been struck at the Busch and N Boulevard intersection in the past five years, records show. In 2010, a 15-year-old was severely injured while using the crosswalk with the signal. In 2012, a 77-year-old died after walking into the intersection against the light.

The city recently upgraded the crosswalks at that intersection using $905,000 in state funds. Tampa added "high emphasis" markings to all four legs of the intersection, as well as "Yield to pedestrian" signs for westbound right-turning traffic, pedestrian countdown walk signals and cameras that give city traffic operations staff a real-time view of the intersection.

The city also plans to spend another $3.4 million on more safety upgrades at the Busch and Armenia Avenue intersection, just west of Chamberlain High. The Florida Department of Transportation said that stretch of Busch averages 42,000 cards and trucks a day.

Still, they said, Busch Boulevard is a four- and six-lane road with fast-moving traffic and stretches as long as half a mile with no crosswalks at all. That leads pedestrians to try to cross in the middle of blocks.

Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins visited Chamberlain High after Tuesday's fatality. He said students need to be alert and remain safe on busy roads.

But he also had a message for drivers: "Watch out for our kids."

That evening, more than 50 family members and friends gathered to hold a candlelight vigil for Miranda. They built a memorial of teddy bears near the accident scene. Her mother shared a message.

"I just want to let you know, don't take any chances," Jones said. "Tell people you love them because you never know when they're going to be taken from you."

A group of teens walking to the vigil approached Busch near where Miranda died.

"That's how she died guys," said one girl.

They walked down to the intersection and waited for the pedestrian crossing signal.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds, staff photographer Octavio Jones and staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Contact Katie Mettler at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @kemettler.

     
     
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