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Tragedy Turned Into a Triumph : Fatality at School Crossing Spurs County to Install Long-Awaited Traffic Signal

December 06, 1990|TINA GRIEGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Crossing the four lanes of Mills Avenue to get to Howard J. McKibben Elementary School was like running a gantlet. Children, parents and crossing guard Elizabeth Wilson dodged hundreds of cars speeding up and down the street.

It was a dangerous contest that 4-year-old Mandy Lynn Halstead never would have lost if Los Angeles County officials had responded to earlier pleas for a traffic signal at Mills Avenue and Trumball Street, parents and teachers said.

Mandy died two days after she and her father were struck by a car driven by a 24-year-old woman. They were crossing the street on McKibben's Back-to-School Night in October. Her father survived the accident. Mandy was buried on her fifth birthday.

As a result of the accident, increased traffic on the route and an emotional campaign by parents, teachers and area residents, officials of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works have approved the installation of a traffic signal at the intersection.

The new light is scheduled to be in operation early next month, county officials said.

"It's a relief," McKibben Principal Dorothy Smith said. "Our children and our crossing guard took their lives into their own hands every time they crossed that street. Parents really rallied to get the light. Everyone felt that this could have been their child and they were bound and determined to get something done."

The stretch of blacktop in front of McKibben School is uninterrupted by traffic signals for about 1 1/2 miles through the unincorporated county territory south of Whittier. In recent years the avenue has become the quickest way to get to the San Gabriel River (605) Freeway, because Mills Avenue becomes Florence Avenue just past the school at Telegraph Road.

To make matters worse, McKibben sits on top of a small rise, and the crosswalk is just past the crest of the rise. Cars traveling south on Mills Avenue cannot see the crosswalk until they are a few yards away. By that time it is too late, said Manuel Magana, president of the South Whittier Community Coordinating Council, which helped get the signal.

In 1987, McKibben PTA President Patti Olson asked county officials to install a traffic light at the intersection.

"I used to cross the street four times a day to take my daughter to and from school," Olson said. "I thought, 'Look at these cars. It's crazy,' . . . there were times when there were so many cars we couldn't get across the street."

County engineers came out and did a traffic survey, but determined that there was not enough traffic to warrant a signal, said Gina Granucci, spokeswoman for the county Department of Public Works.

In October, 1989, Principal Smith asked the county for yellow flashing school crossing signals. The county again said no because the school has a crossing guard, Granucci said.

Last October, just days before the accident, Mandy's mother, Terri Halstead, and crossing guard Wilson were discussing the danger of the crosswalk. The Halstead children rarely used it because they rode the bus, but, Wilson said, Halstead was concerned that someone would get killed while trying to cross.

On Oct. 18 at about 7:30 p.m., Mandy, her mother, father and brother set off for McKibben's Back-to-School Night. As they neared Mills Avenue, Terri Halstead and her son, Tommy, began crossing. Mandy and her father, Tim, were right behind them.

Terri Halstead said she suspects the driver of the car never saw them until after striking her husband and daughter.

Soon after the accident, Olson began circulating a petition demanding a traffic light, which she later presented to the county. Olson and other community leaders called local, county and state representatives to tell them the story of Mandy's death. Olson collected almost 2,000 signatures.

In early November, county engineers did another traffic survey, and this time they told school officials that they would install a signal.

Magana said the coordinating council has begun a fund-raising campaign to buy a memorial plaque to be placed at the school. The council also plans to put signs that read "Protect Our Children" under school crossing signs in the South Whittier School District.

This week, as Terri Halstead stood in front of the school, she said she was happy that the community was able to rally to get a traffic signal. As she spoke, she watched a metallic blue Camaro speed over the hill, the driver gunning the engine, and her voice shook with anger.

"Jerks," she said, watching the car travel north up Mills Avenue. "We just want people to think when they pass a school. . . . We turned a tragedy into a triumph. I'm sorry my daughter had to die to do it, but now other children in the community are safe, I hope."

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