Intersection Deaths Spur Safety Debate

Times Staff Writer

Every weekday for nearly three years, Edward and Denise Castro went to the city's senior citizen center for a hot meal and coffee. They spent several hours visiting with friends, singing songs and watching others play cards.

As was their custom, the Castros left Kling Center shortly after noon on Jan. 29 for the short drive home. A few hundred yards from the center, Castro, 82, eased the couple's blue sedan to a stop at the corner of Cordova Road and Imperial Highway, an intersection that nearby residents have complained for years is unsafe.

Moments later, police said, the Castros were broadsided while attempting to make a left turn from Cordova onto westbound Imperial. By mid-afternoon, both had died at local hospitals.

The accident has sparked new debate about the safety of the intersection.

Ironically, residents living near the intersection had gone to the City Council the night before the Castros were killed to seek a signal for the corner. They say new development along Imperial--a major four-lane artery that slices east-west through the city--has increased traffic in the area. Turning left from Cordova onto Imperial is all but impossible, they said, particularly during rush hour.

'Like a Speedway'

"It is like a speedway through that stretch," said Harriet Dennison, who has battled City Hall for nearly five years trying to win support for safety improvements at the T-intersection. "Anyone trying to turn from Cordova is taking a gamble. A signal has been needed there for a long time."

Until now, city officials have disagreed with the residents, saying that past engineering studies warned against putting a traffic light at the corner because it would only add to the accident risk. Because of the area's hilly topography, Imperial curves and slopes past Cordova. Some motorists might not see a signal at Cordova in time to stop, a county engineer concluded in a 1984 study authorized by the city's Public Safety Commission.

That study, however, may be outdated, according to council members who approved a new review of the intersection by a private engineering firm, Willdan and Associates. Results of the $3,000 study should be available later this week.

Options the council may consider include installing a flashing yellow light, banning all left turns at the intersection or banning only left turns from Cordova to Imperial.

"Two years ago, it was our feeling that a signal would only compound the problems at that intersection," Councilman Wayne Rew said. "But there has been growth in that area, and maybe the situation has changed."

Used by Many Commuters

Imperial is one of the city's busiest streets, used not only by residents but a large number of commuters who live in northern Orange County and pass through La Mirada on the way to work in Santa Fe Springs and elsewhere. According to the 1984 traffic study, about 32,000 vehicles a day travel on Imperial past Cordova. Residents worry that new development along Imperial to the west of Cordova will generate even more traffic. A shopping center has just opened on the south side of Imperial at La Mirada Boulevard, and a $15-million expansion of the Medical Center of La Mirada is nearing completion.

Cordova itself has more traffic than most residential roads, Dennison and other residents contend. There are three churches within a block of each other on Cordova and the senior center is nearby on Bluefield Avenue. One of the churches, First Baptist of La Mirada, eventually plans to build a gymnasium and several classrooms.

"At the very least we need a flashing light at the corner, something to warn motorists there is an intersection," said Dennison, who lives on nearby Bluefield Avenue. She helped gather 2,000 signatures since the Castros' death asking the city to install a traffic light at Cordova. "It's just unfortunate that it takes the death of two people to get the wheels of government rolling."

A neighbor, Sharon Mann, agreed. Mann's mother, Charlene, was also broadsided trying to turn left from Cordova onto Imperial in June, 1984. Mann said her mother, who was on her way to work, misjudged the speed of a motorist driving east on Imperial up

the hill. Her mother survived the collision, but has been in a coma at County-USC Medical Center ever since.

"It is nearly impossible to tell how fast those cars are coming," said Mann, 23, who still lives in her mother's house. Mann admits that at peak traffic periods she avoids the Cordova-Imperial intersection by taking back streets to a signal at Ocaso and Imperial, just east of Cordova.

"They talk about not wanting to put a signal at Cordova because it might cause lots of rear-end accidents," she said. "Well, I'll tell you, I wish to hell my mother had been in a rear-end accident. She might still be living here."

According to Sheriff's Department records, the intersection had averaged about four accidents a year until last March, when the city added acceleration and deceleration lanes for motorists traveling east on Imperial. The turning lanes were designed to make it safer for drivers entering or exiting Cordova. The accident involving the Castros was the first since the lanes were installed, according to Tom Robinson, the city's community resources manager and liaison with the Public Safety Commission.

Friends and relatives said the Castros were extremely close. Married for 51 years, they were almost inseparable, particularly after a series of strokes in recent years had slowed Denise, who was 75.

Viola Garcia, director of the senior lunch program at Kling Center, said, "Edward was her eyes, and she was his love."

Other Driver Not Cited

When Kateri Jordan, one of the couple's seven children, first learned that her parents had been killed, she said she told herself, " 'Thank God they died together. I'm not sure how long one could have survived without the other.' "

According to the accident report, Castro was driving with an expired license. The driver of the vehicle that struck the Castros' suffered only minor injuries and was not cited. The report said he was going the speed limit and Castro either did not see him or misjudged the time he had to make the turn onto Imperial.

The accident was particularly hard on Fred DeLeon, perhaps Edward Castro's best friend at the senior center. Every day, DeLeon would play the piano and Castro, a retired General Motors worker, would sing along.

"He was like a brother," recalled DeLeon, who said he has not gone near the piano much since the accident. "For three years, he stood there, belting out those hymns. Sometimes I think I can still hear his voice. . . . He was a loving man."

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