IRVINE — Dennis Sterndahl won't soon forget that slight bend of freeway where it happened.
As a road crew from Sterndahl's highway striping company worked along the southbound San Diego Freeway late one night last week, a van came slicing out of the darkness at 80 m.p.h. Without warning, it plowed into Kevin Smith, crushing the 26-year-old highway worker against a flatbed maintenance truck.
The death has sent a shiver through Smith's colleagues at Sterndahl Enterprises, a small San Fernando firm that had never before had a worker killed on the job. Almost a week since the April 19 accident, the normally steely nerved highway workers remain uneasy about taking up where they left off.
As a result, completion of a long-awaited car-pool lane through South Orange County is expected to be delayed until at least the middle of next week as California Department of Transportation officials and a contractor decide whether to dispatch another firm to complete the work or wait as the Sterndahl crew musters the fortitude to return.
"They're a very small company, and everyone is shook up about the prospect of going back out there," said Bill Decker, a Caltrans engineer on the project. "We have maybe three or four good days of work left. . . . We thought they'd be right back out, but I guess they're going to have to take some time to regroup."
Sterndahl, for one, says he isn't about to force anyone back out to the site of the tragedy at the Irvine Center Drive exit.
"I don't want to say it's jinxed. It's just not going to be easy for anyone," Sterndahl said Tuesday. "It's going to be the toughest nights this company ever has gone through to go out and finish that job."
It is a case of where the hassle of deadlines and push to get a construction job done may take a back seat for just a bit. The grieving isn't over, not just yet.
On Saturday, Smith's work-mates erected a sign at the accident site as a roadside marker to remind motorists of the tragedy, in which the driver of the van was also killed. Caltrans officials later said the sign had to be removed because it was placed illegally.
On Monday, Smith's friends and family held a memorial service. And on Tuesday, the Sterndahl crew went back out into the field for the first time since the accident, opening a new set of ramps on the San Bernardino Freeway in Montclair.
"The guys were jumpier than hell," Sterndahl said. "Sure enough, we had some cars drive right through the cones into the enclosure where they were working."
No one was hurt--and it was a first step back. But for some of the highway workers, the thought of returning to work in the midnight gloom on the stretch of highway where Smith was cut down remains an ominous barrier. So far, no one is pushing them.
"Everyone understands what a tragedy this was," Sterndahl said, noting how the firm has received messages of condolence from dozens of other highway construction companies throughout the state. "No one, not Caltrans or anyone else, is putting pressure on us to perform at this time. Everyone is just trying to get over the shock of it."
Some are eager to get beyond the tragedy. Troy Hill, a co-worker of Smith, said he wants to get back out to the stretch of freeway and just get the job done. Hill expects the crew to be back out by next Tuesday night to finish up.
"It's going to be hard, but there is a job to be done," said Hill, 29, the brother-in-law of the young woman Smith was to marry in November. "Still, I'm very nervous about the idea of going back out there at night. There's just been too many close calls on this project. Sometimes it feels like it's us against everyone on the road."
Just two weeks ago, Hill had a near-miss of his own. He was bent over along the road pulling up some tape after a fresh strip of paint had been laid down. A car whizzed by just inches from his head, close enough to hit the bill of his baseball cap and send it twirling down the highway, Hill said.
It was one of many close calls. Less than two hours before Smith's death, a white four-wheel-drive Bronco deliberately pulled inside the orange highway cones and swerved at the men, Sterndahl said. Some of the crew roared after the Bronco to try to get the license number but never caught up.
"The sad thing is we get so little respect for providing a service," Sterndahl said. "People don't look at the long-term gain of having a better road to drive on. They look at the short-term inconvenience.
"When the majority of the motoring public sees us out there, they're upset. We're in their way."
Caltrans has increasingly taken pains to ensure that highway projects don't infringe too heavily on the motoring public, Sterndahl said. But all too often that puts highway work crews alongside cars hurtling past like airplanes.
"It's people like Kevin Smith out there doing their job to the best of their ability who are caught in the middle," Sterndahl said. "It's a hazardous occupation. No doubt. And it certainly makes you think. It makes you wonder if that's what you ought to be doing."