“Rest easy!” says the simple epitaph that Peninsula High School students wrote in a painted and painful tribute several days ago.
What’s most gut-wrenching about the words, however, is that they didn’t appear on just one message rock to commemorate a classmate who died in a traffic accident. They’re repeated on a second rock on the Purdy campus in memory of a second student who lost his life in a separate accident three days later.
The Peninsula Seahawk community is doubly devastated this week after the deaths of two 17-year-old boys. Kyle Stillion was walking to the store along Key Peninsula Highway in the Lakebay area late the afternoon of Oct. 5 when he was hit by a car that drifted across the shoulder. James Oatridge was a passenger in a car that collided with a pickup truck in the Burley area the following Sunday morning.
High school students should never have to face such sudden loss, let alone during homecoming week. And what of the extended network of families, friends, teachers and Gig Harbor area neighbors? Let’s just say “fishbowl” is more than the name of the the local rivalry high school football game; it conveys a closeness where one ripple or wave is absorbed by all.
Kyle was described by one person on his GoFundMe page as “one of the lights shining brightly at our school,” while a friend commented on James’ page that he “was probably the funniest person I've ever meet; he was always able to put a smile on everyone's face.”
In a matter of days, the outpouring of donations for funeral expenses has surpassed $10,000 for each boy. Contributions, warm thoughts and special memories are still being collected online.
If it’s possible for any good to come from the twin tragedies, perhaps government leaders will be stirred to improve traffic safety west of state Route 16, where both boys died and the roads are notoriously hazardous.
State Route 302, in particular, is fraught with white-knuckle problems. They stretch from the structurally deficient Purdy Sand Spit Bridge, through the steep Wauna curves all the way to the blind spots and dark, poorly maintained reaches of Key Peninsula Highway North, where Stillion died.
Chuck West, battalion chief at Key Peninsula Fire & Medic One, last year described the high-accident corridor in a way that seems eerily prophetic today.
“It’s a combination of people getting distracted and the roads not having any room for error,” West told the Gateway in March 2016. “We have a lot of people walking along the road, (and) pedestrian safety is a big concern.”
A group of West Sound leaders successfully lobbied for state money last year on a different project: to study improvements along the busy state Route 16 corridor between Gig Harbor and Gorst. But there’s no momentum to finish a dormant study of SR302 to the Elgin-Clifton Road junction, and safer access to the Key Peninsula via a new bridge across Burley Lagoon is years away.
Some spot work has been done to widen shoulders and add sidewalks, but it’s not enough. KP residents might well ask: When will it be our turn?
For now, all they can do is redouble personal efforts to make roads safer. Check lights and wipers, stay alert and set aside electronic devices. Extra vigilance is warranted as daylight dwindles this time of year. Research shows the accident risk at 6 p.m. in the month after daylight savings time ends is 11 times higher than in April when it begins.
Wherever you drive or walk, take a moment to remember Kyle, James and the friends they left behind. Painted rocks on high school campuses weren’t meant for epitaphs, nor homecoming weekends for mourning.