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Despite lawsuits, state slow to fix deadly stretch of road

SHELBY – It's just a short stretch of a two-lane country road – maybe 30 feet or so.

In good weather, motorists who zip along Route 63 through the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge in Orleans County probably wouldn't give it a second thought.

But this is where David M. Russo died on Dec. 26, 2013. His car slid on a patch of ice, flipped over and landed upside-down in the swamp along the road. The 43-year-old father of two drowned inside his car.

Although the road is straight, there is a slight dip. When water from the wetlands – the Alabama Swamp – rises onto the road, the pavement  becomes extremely hazardous situation, locals say, especially in the winter when the water turns to ice.

New York State, which owns the road, has been made aware on many occasions that this is a dangerous place, Shelby residents said. But nothing has been done.

"I think this is one of the most deadly stretches of road in Orleans, Genesee and Niagara counties," said Jeff Lyons, a volunteer firefighter who runs Lyons Collision in nearby Medina with his father, Ancel Lyons. "Over the past 32 years, I'll bet we handled at least 100 accidents out there."

State accident reports show at least eight similar accidents on this stretch or a nearby stretch Route 63, linked to wet conditions caused by swamp spillovers.

And the state recently agreed to pay Russo's surviving family members $3.2 million to settle lawsuits alleging that the road was unsafe.

But three and a half years since Russo died, the state has done no work to stop the road from flooding over.

In fact, the state says the road is safe but that improvements are in the pipeline.

"DOT was recently awarded a Federal Land Access Program grant to modify the roadway surface and replace a number of culverts. The road is safe. This work will make it safer," spokeswoman Lori Maher said in an email response to repeated inquiries about the hazard by The Buffalo News.

She would not answer other questions about the section of road. Russo's fatality occurred near Oak Orchard Ridge Road, about 45 miles northeast of Buffalo.

Shelby residents said they have told New York State on many occasions that Route 63 near the Alabama Swamps is a dangerous stretch of road. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

A federal official told The News that there is a highway improvement project in the works, but she could give no timetable.

The situation has outraged area residents who regularly travel Route 63, which is known as South Gravel Road among Shelby area residents.

"It is really dangerous. Every time I go by there, I get chills thinking about what happened," said Karen Collette, a retired insurance broker who lives about a mile from where Russo died. "Every year, I think to myself, 'Why don’t they fix this? Why can't they just raise the road there, so it won't get flooded anymore?' "

Flooding and icing have been a problem on Route 63 "for at least 30 years," said Dan Schultz, Collette's fiancee.

"I drive through there several times a week. The road floods, and you cannot tell there is water or ice on the road until you are already in it. In the winter, you just pray that the car coming at you from the other direction doesn't go out of control and wind up in your lane," said John Shingleton of Medina. "As a taxpayer, I think they ought to do something to fix it. If I have problems with my house, the government makes me fix it."

Shingleton, 40, was there when Russo died.

He waded into the ice-choked swamp trying to rescue Russo and a passenger, identified by police as Lisa Stanley, 40.

"I still have nightmares where I hear their voices, calling for help," Shingleton said. "It was absolutely the worst thing I have ever witnessed in my life."

John Shingleton has nightmares about the day near the Alabama Swamps when David Russo died in a horrific 2013 car accident, drowning in his car. "It was absolutely the worst thing I have ever witnessed in my life," Shingleton said. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

After one tow truck was unable to pull the waterlogged car from the swamp, Shelby volunteer firefighters used one of their pumper trucks to drag the vehicle out. Rescuers were able to revive Stanley. It was too late for Russo.

Russo died a hero, Shingleton said.

"There was a small pocket of air in that car, and that's where they were able to breathe. Every time she would sink down into the water, he would come up underneath her and push her back up into the air pocket," Shingleton said. "I really believe that he gave up his own life to save her."

"Don’t quit on me!" were the last words Shingleton reported hearing from the struggling Russo that day.

Shingleton said he and two other men who went into the ice-choked water to rescue the couple were treated for frostbite.

Stanley's 85-year-old grandmother, Dolores Parker, is upset that nothing has been done to prevent flooding on the road where her granddaughter nearly died.

"I was the first person to get to the hospital to see Lisa. She didn’t know yet that her boyfriend had already died," the Medina woman said. "Her whole body was shaking. She almost died."

Efforts by The News to contact Stanley and her attorney were unsuccessful.

Court papers filed in Russo's case quoted Stanley as saying Russo was driving slowly on the day of the accident, in a Pontiac Grand Am that had new snow tires. The condition of the road seemed normal until they came to the dip in the road.

"Suddenly everything changed," she said in the court papers.

After the car flipped over, Stanley said: "Water looked like it was coming in on all sides. It was slushy. It happened really fast."

Only the tires of the submerged vehicle were visible when he got there, Shingleton said.

Two Buffalo attorneys for the Russo family, Terrence M. Connors and Joseph D. Morath Jr., were surprised to learn that the state has not taken steps to correct the flooding on Route 63 nearly 3½ years after Russo's death.

One of the reasons why Russo's family members filed the lawsuit was to shed light on a serious safety hazard and force the state to fix it, the attorneys said.

"The essence of our claim was that the road was improperly designed and that it created a lot of hazards for drivers. ...When we sent our people down there to talk to residents, one person after another had stories about accidents there," Connors said. "The state is definitely on notice that a problem exists out there and needs to be addressed."

Although divorced from his wife, David Russo continued to be a "great father," who stayed in close contact with his son and daughter, provided financial assistance, helped them with their homework and took them camping and fishing, the lawyers said.

Russo, of Stafford, was a nurse employed by the state.

There were at least eight other accidents in the same general area of Route 63 between February 2010 and the date of Russo's accident, according to court papers that cited state accident reports.

At least five of those eight accidents were in almost the exact location where Russo lost control of his car, according to court papers. Three of those accidents happened within 48 hours of the Russo accident.

One day before Russo died, Collette witnessed the aftermath of one of those accidents. She recalled seeing a car in the swamp right across the road from where Russo's car landed.

"That was on Christmas Day 2013. I saw this car in the swamp, with water up to its windows. I said to myself, 'Somebody is going to die here one of these days,' " recalled Collette, who for years has kept a notebook  about dangerous incidents on Route 63.

The very next day, she heard sirens and saw an ambulance "speeding down the road faster than any ambulance I've seen in my life," Collette said.

"I said, 'Oh, no, somebody is either dead or hurt really bad.' "

Hours later, Collette heard that a man –  Russo – had died after his car flipped over into the swamp.

"For about a week or longer after he died, the state had that section of the road closed, even after the water had come down," Collette said.

Since Russo's death, the state has done a better job of occasionally putting up warning signs or brightly colored barrels to alert people to dangers from the flooding, she and Shingleton said. Both are surprised and upset that nothing has been done to improve the road.

"It seems to me that the road has to be built up a bit in spots to keep the water from covering the road," Collette said. "I absolutely think it would be in the state's best interest to fix this. Two winters ago, I was driving on that section of the road, and the car coming toward me hit the water and started hydroplaning – it was heading straight for me in my lane. I braked, and fortunately the other driver regained control of his car before anything bad happened."

Ancel and Jeff Lyons, the father and son who run the Medina collision shop, agreed with Collette that the low portions of Route 63 need to be built up to prevent flooding.

"They need to bring the road level up, but it seems like the state has decided they aren't going to spend the money to do it," Jeff Lyons said.

"They can build roads over mountains, so why can't they fix this?" asked his father. "The government spends money on the damnedest things. Why not this?"

Why has it taken so long for the state to address the safety issues when David Russo died well over three years ago?

One possible answer was supplied by John E. Kehlenback. He is the highway superintendent for the Town of Alabama, which borders Shelby. Kehlenback was one of the people who responded to the Russo accident scene and tried to rescue him.

Kehlenbeck said he spoke to state DOT officials about the situation earlier this year.

"They are looking at the situation, but there are all kinds of hoops to jump through because Route 63 runs through a federal wildlife refuge," Kehlenbeck said one DOT official told him.

The road belongs to the state, said Terri Edwards, spokeswoman for Northeast region of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which runs the refuge. But federal and state officials are working on a plan for safety improvements, she said.

Those federally funded improvements would include raising sections of Route 63 by 2.5 inches, Edwards said. She said she did not have information available on the timetable for the improvements or how much they will cost.

Kehlenbeck, who has worked on area roads for 34 years, offered two other thoughts.

"I think a big part of the problem is the drivers. They need to be more cautious out there," he said. "And also, if you raise up part of the road, you're going to raise the water level on the side of the road, and you're going to cause water problems somewhere else. It's one of those things where you're damned if you do and damned if you don't."

The highway superintendent remembers the desperate efforts to rescue Russo.

"I was there," he said, "but it's not something I like to talk about or think about."

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