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Tragedy of losing man, dog in same-morning accidents devastates family

ROYALTON – Robert H. Strassel loved his wife, his children and his dog, Ellie.

“It was like his child,” said Alyssa Strassel, one of his two daughters. “He spent a lot of time with her. He treated her like another sibling, is the best way to sum it up.”

So he was naturally upset when his wife, Deborah, woke him Monday morning to tell him Ellie, a 7-year-old golden retriever, had just been killed by a vehicle on the road in front of their home.

Then as Strassel was cleaning up the messy scene in the predawn hours, he too was struck and killed.

The tragedy ended a love affair between Deborah and Robert that began when they were children in Lockport, and it has devastated the family.

Ellie was let out of the house about 5 a.m., as Deborah awoke and was getting ready to drive to a gym for a workout.

“Our usual routine is the dog and the three cats come down looking for treats,” Deborah said.

But this time, Ellie kept pawing at the door and was determined to go outside. She scampered into traffic on Akron Road and was killed by a westbound car.

The driver stopped a short distance down the unlighted rural road and gave her information to Niagara County Sheriff’s Deputy Edward Finley, who had arrived to take an accident report.

Finley, who was summoned at 5:21 a.m., pulled his patrol vehicle into the Strassels’ driveway to write a copy of the information for Strassel’s use.

Meanwhile, a passing motorist stopped his vehicle to shield the dog’s body beside the road. He rang the doorbell to tell Deborah about the accident. Deborah and her 19-year-old daughter Brittany then awoke Robert to tell him about the accident. Robert threw on jeans and a dark jacket.

The driver helped Robert to carry the dog back to the garage, said Lisa DeWaters, Robert’s sister.

Then Robert, who was upset, got a blue bucket, filled it with water, and a shovel to clean up the dog’s remains in the westbound lane of the road.

“Things will work out,” Deborah told her husband. “It’s going to be OK.”

He turned to her.

“It’s gonna be a bad, bad day,” he said.

And those were his last words to her. He was struck and killed while cleaning the road.

“I think my dad just felt like it was his obligation,” Alyssa Strassel said of his cleaning up after his dog was killed. “Maybe he felt like he just wanted to take care of that situation, go out and not leave that for his family to see.”

“He didn’t want any of us to see how gruesome was the scene,” Deborah said.

As deputy Finley was working in his vehicle, he heard a thud behind him, Sheriff’s Lt. Brian Harrer said.

A westbound car struck Robert and his body was knocked flying into a drainage ditch in front of his home. The driver hasn’t been charged, although the investigation is still open.

Deborah found Finley in the ditch on his hands and knees, “holding my husband’s head.”

Her husband didn’t respond to her shouts of “Rob, Rob.”

Deborah, a registered nurse at Univera Health, said she knew it was “terminal.”

She went into the house to get a blanket, while the Sheriff’s Office summoned Mercy Flight, which arrived in 10 minutes. The helicopter landed on the front yard of Deborah’s parents, next door, as the family waved the helicopter in with flashlights in the darkness.

Robert was pronounced dead in Erie County Medical Center of head trauma. He also suffered a broken arm and leg.

Robert had been an electrical engineer, but was disabled because of a work-related back injury for almost 20 years.

Robert was the love of her life, Deborah said. They grew up next door to each other in the Town of Lockport. He would have turned 56 on Halloween.

She has photos of her mother, Donna Rae Richards, holding both of them as babies.

“We were friends, rode bikes together,” Deborah said.

When Robert was about 10 years old, he gave his future wife a note that said, “I’m in like with you.”

They married in 1983, after Deborah had been engaged to and then broke up with three other men, all named Bill.

“They called me a Bill collector,” she laughed.

Deborah wonders if the accident that killed her husband might have been prevented by a lower speed limit on the road.

Akron Road, part of Route 93, is a 55 mph truck route with wide shoulders, and she said vehicles, including tractor-trailers, tend to travel much faster than that.

“You don’t feel safe putting your garbage out,” Deborah said.

Frank Wagner, who lives across the road from the Strassels, agreed.

“I don’t feel safe going out to get the paper,” he said.

Wagner said his wife’s vehicle was once rear-ended as she waited to make a left turn into her driveway.

There are no street lights on the road for a distance of about a mile in the Strassels’ neighborhood.

Many accidents have occurred on the road, Deborah said, including a three-vehicle crash this summer at the nearby intersection of Akron and Dysinger roads that also brought Mercy Flight to her parents’ yard.

In a check of files dating back 15 years, there is no record of the Town of Royalton ever making a request for a speed limit reduction on Akron Road, according to Susan Surdej, a spokeswoman for the Buffalo office of the Department of Transportation. Street lighting is up to the town, not the DOT, Surdej said.

Royalton Supervisor Jennifer H. Bieber did not return calls seeking comment on the issues.

Alyssa thanked Ridge Animal Hospital of Hartland for cremating Ellie at no charge, after a neighbor, Dennis Cherry, took Ellie there.

Robert D. Strassel, the couple’s son, talked about the loss to the family.

“I admired my dad for his love and respect of life,” he said. “His last act of physical generosity serves as a lasting testament to his dedication to God, family, friends and nature. God blessed us with his presence and spirit.”

Robert and Ellie’s ashes will be mixed together in the same urn after their separate cremations, Alyssa said.