WOONSOCKET – Six weeks after her son's death in a motorcycle crash, Jennifer Blain can barely find the words to describe the pain of her loss.
“To say I'm devastated doesn't even begin to describe my feelings,” she says. “It has left such a huge hole in our lives. It's just him and I at the house and we kind of relied on each other for things.”
A North Smithfield resident, Blain cannot bring back her son, 26-year-old Johnathan “John” Blain. But there is one thing she can do that will make her feel as though his death wasn't in vain, and that would be to make certain another child's ride through a certain stretch of East Woonsocket is not his last.
All it would take, she says, is to make the junction of Walnut Hill and Diamond Hill roads safer for motorists – something that isn't likely to happen unless enough people call attention to the unique hazards there.
It's a job she's already thrown herself into. She's reached out to city officials, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation and the Woonsocket Police Department.
And, she says, she's reached out to the Ferland Corporation, the owners of Walnut Hill Apartments. Blain – and others – say Ferland Corporation, one of the state's largest residential landlords, could go a long way toward making the junction safer by removing a wall at the entryway to Walnut Hill Road that serves as a major hazard to navigation.
She says the wall obstructs the view of motorists so much that they're practically in the travel lane on Diamond Hill Road before they can see around it.
“If nothing is done you're going to see this same story down the road that another family is going through this,” said Blain. “I would give anything to have my son back. I would work so hard to make sure some other family does not have to go through this.”
While the crash claimed John's life, his passenger was luckier. Kim Tanguay, 28, of Lincoln, survived despite suffering extensive injuries, including more than a dozen broken bones. Although she faces what family members say will be a long and arduous road ahead, they expect her to make a full recovery and have launched a crowdfunding campaign to offset her medical expenses, shooting for $30,000.
The emotional toll for John's mother's is heavy, but she is getting a good deal of help in her quest for a Diamond Hill Road makeover.
Josh Lussier, a friend of her son, has launched a petition to bring down the Walnut Hill wall on change.org, the civic advocacy website. So far, it's garnered more than 1,200 signatures.
“I didn't want anybody to have to go through what we went through,” said Lussier, a friend of John's for many years. A gregarious, rangy figure who was in his last year of an electrician's apprenticeship, the graduate of Woonsocket Area Career and Technical Center was “a huge-hearted, really funny guy with a wicked infectious laugh,” said Lussier.
“He was there for all his friends,” he added.
Lussier spent almost three hours at Walnut Hill and Diamond Hill roads a few days after John was killed there to pass out memorial stickers of his friend to passing motorists. He said he got a first-hand view of just how dangerous the area is, largely because of the wall.
Motorists, he said, “had to put their front bumper into the lane in order to see.” In a scene that was sadly ironic, Lussier was at the intersection with a TV reporter doing a story on the road hazard when a black SUV pulled right into the intersection, nearly causing an accident.
“That wall needs to come down or they need to put a light in there,” he said.
And it's overwhelming likely that one or more of those things is going to happen, according to Police Chief Thomas F. Oates.
Thanks to the efforts of John's mother and Lussier, it appears RIDOT has decided to team up with the WPD to take a closer look at the T-stop formed by Walnut Hill and Diamond Hill roads.
RIDOT reached out to him several weeks ago to propose a formal traffic safety assessment, which is well under way, according to Oates. In partnership with a private consulting company, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Oates said the survey will involve assembling an array of raw data from the area, including traffic counts, the number of accidents that have occurred there, potential visual obstructions, and more.
Along with members of the WPD's Accident Prevention Bureau, the study team conducted on on-site review of the road conditions several weeks ago and is in the process of developing a report with recommendations.
“This was an initial meeting we had with them but everything is on the table,” Oates said. “Once they crunch the numbers more they'll come up with some short-term things we could do and long term.”
OATES SAYS the crash that claimed John Blain's life and left Tanguay seriously injured happened in broad daylight on June 7, a Sunday – about 1:40 p.m. After an investigation that took several weeks to complete, the police concluded that the operator of the vehicle that struck them was at least partially at fault. Jeanne Fortier, 72, was cited for failure to yield of right of way in the crash.
The investigation showed that Fortier was traveling north on Walnut Hill Road and came to a stop at Diamond Hilll Road, but then pulled out. She told police she thought the right of way was clear with the intention of turning west on Diamond Hill Road, but as she crossed the eastbound lane, John's motorcycle crashed into her car.
“There's some clear obstruction on Walnut Hill Road,” says Oates. “There's some stone walls on private property. There's also an electrical box, a tree, a monument, and those issues are being discussed.”
Efforts to reach the Ferland Corporation about the ongoing discussion about the wall were not successful on Tuesday. John's mother and Lussier have also tried reaching the company but have yet to engage anyone in a conversation about their concerns, they say.
Based on a preliminary review of the data, Oates says the crash record for Walnut Hill and Diamond Hill roads raises some issues that should be addressed.
Depending on how traffic-counting software is asked to search, it's possible to generate a list of nearly a hundred motor vehicle accidents at or around the site during the last five years. But Oates says that since 2015, there have been 11 involving injuries and one fatal – Johnathan Blain's.
A single death is more than enough to implement a hazard-reduction plan for the site, Oates says, and he lauds Blain's family for sounding the alarm.
“That's the whole idea,” said the chief. “You don't want to have multiple fatalities before you need to do something. The loss of one person is enough to take a look.”
And Oates said it will not surprise him if the study finds much more that needs fixing on Diamond Hill Road than the visual obstructions at Walnut Hill Road.
Long recognized as the city's principal retail strip, Diamond Hill Road is not what it used to be just a few years ago, before the exodus of a few of the big box names, including Lowe's, Walmart and Staples. One statistic that jumps off the page for Oates is traffic counts: In 2016, according to RIDOT, there were an average of 8,400 motor vehicle trips on Diamond Hill Road per day, a figure which has since plummeted to about 6,700.
While traffic patterns have changed, the configuration of the road has remained the same. It's still four lanes, two in each direction, with traffic signals in front of plaza entryways that are no longer as busy as they used to be.
In some ways the configuration probably encourages motorists to exceed the posted speed limit of 35 mph, Oates believes. While there is no traffic signal at Walnut Hill Road, east of it there are two in front of little used entryways on a straightaway to the Cumberland line.
“That road, which you don't have any natural breaks in it, I think the natural inclination would be to go more than 35 mph,” says Oates. “If you're not familiar with the area, if you're looking straight ahead, it looks like a clean shot.”
On other areas plagued by similar problems, RIDOT has implemented hazard-reduction plans known as “a road diet,” said Oates. It's a way of constricting traffic, through lane reductions, the repositioning of traffic signals and other means, to persuade motorists to slow down.
Ultimately, Oates says, Diamond Hill Road – aka Route 114 – is a state road, so what happens there is up to RIDOT, “but we'll partner with them.”
For Blain, it's heart-wrenching to think that her son had to die before anyone considered the intersection worthy of a safety review.
Still, she's grateful that it's happening. She's cautiously optimistic that officials will follow through and the necessary corrections will be made.
She has to be. Because she and John's friends won't go away until they do.
“There has been no media attention to this intersection until this accident and until Josh pushed for this with the backing of his friends,” she says. “Johnathan's friends were like brothers to him...When someone passes there is always talk of doing things like this and casseroles being sent, but these guys are relentless and we won't stop until something is actually done.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo