Sometimes a harrowing screech precedes the collision. Sometimes there's nothing except the sudden, wrenching explosion of metal meeting metal and the disconcerting rain of shattered windshield glass. So say those who work near the intersection of SW Seventh Street and South Miami Avenue. Anyone who travels regularly through that doomed crossroads, particularly during the moments before dusk, has likely seen wreckage, if not the calamity that precipitated it.
Michael Latterner, owner of the building on the northeast corner of the intersection, had seen it a few too many times. "There seems to be at least one accident weekly on this corner and frequently another follows before the first is cleared away," wrote Latterner on January 2, 1990, in a cautionary letter to the Florida Department of Transportation. Fearing for the safety of customers and employees at the Fishbone Grille, a new restaurant soon to open at the intersection - in the same structure that houses the blues bar Tobacco Road - Latterner asked the state's traffic engineers to study the situation.
Receiving no reply, he sent another missive three weeks later and another a year later on February 14, 1991. "Two days ago we had an accident at the intersection and again yesterday there was a three-car collision at this corner," he wrote in a loveless Valentine's Day note to FDOT district safety engineer Janak Thakkar. "It is now my strong intention to motivate the FDOT to at least attempt to resolve the problems at this intersection. Henceforth, among other things, I will be giving each accident victim a copy of all previous correspondence that I have sent you."
Latterner's third letter, sent thirteen months after his first warning, finally set off an alarm at FDOT. Thakkar and his drones roused themselves and trundled down to SW Seventh Street and South Miami Avenue, clipboards in hand. The traffic experts recognized a speeding problem along SW Seventh Street (a westbound one-way street) approaching South Miami Avenue (a northbound one-way street). FDOT's solution, detailed in a letter to Latterner on April 8, 1991, included replacing eight-inch overhead traffic signals with twelve-inch signals (to make them easier to see against the setting sun), installing "signal ahead" signs 500 feet east of the intersection, trimming trees near the crossroads, and lengthening the interval between the moment one signal turns red and the other signal turns green. FDOT and Metro-Dade would collaborate on the job, promised Thakkar, who added, "We will request this work be appropriately expedited."
But FDOT officials soon forgot about the intersection and turned their attention to more pressing concerns, such as transforming the MacArthur Causeway into a six-lane superhighway. Angered, Latterner unleashed a barrage of letters beginning in December 1991 and continuing until early this month. "The failure of responsible government authorities to correct this dangerous situation at this location is one of the most irresponsible situations I have ever encountered," he wrote on April 3 in a letter copied to Gov. Lawton Chiles and Mayor Xavier Suarez of Miami. "How many dead bodies is it going to take before this dangerous situation is corrected? ...I do believe that it was safer to be walking the streets in Beirut several years ago, than to be standing at this intersection in downtown Miami."
Hyperbole aside, Latterner's indignance is warranted. From October 1991 to March of this year, cars had slammed into the side of the seafood restaurant on three separate occasions. One collision actually catapulted a car into the Fishbone Grille, shattering the plate-glass window behind which two customers were eating lunch. As a protective measure, Latterner began parking a car in the loading zone in front of Fishbone. He also unleashed his attorney, who wrote a joint letter to the director of the state's Office of Right-of-Way and to the attorney general, threatening legal action. Kenneth Vorce, FDOT's district traffic operations engineer in Miami, quickly dispatched a vaguely apologetic letter, assuring Latterner that engineers would implement the safety measures immediately.
"[Latterner] was accurate in his statement that we had not been responsive in the sense of responding in kind to his concerns as they were initially addressed," Vorce hedges. In addition, the engineer admits, the safety measures discussed more than a year ago "were not coordinated properly between the state and the county. In the last couple of weeks we've worked very closely with Dade County to make sure we don't have those communication problems again."
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Besides the agency's administrative lethargy, FDOT's accident records didn't help to grab anyone's attention. According to the data, only two collisions occurred from 1989 to 1990, and none happened in 1988. But those statistics don't indicate every accident at the intersection. State law only requires local police forces, in this case Miami and Metro-Dade, to report accidents that result in personal injury or significant property damage.
Indeed, workers in the neighborhood scoff at those numbers. While Latterner furnishes the highest estimate - one collision per week - other estimates range from one crash every two weeks to ten per year. Officer Darryl Smith of the Miami Police Department's accident-investigation unit says that in recent years the intersection hasn't endured enough mishaps to warrant special attention. "You just about have that many accidents anywhere else in the city," he says dispassionately. "It's not a Dead Man's Corner or anything."
That isn't the sentiment of Miami Police Chief Calvin Ross, whose assistant chief Arnold Gibbs fired off a letter to Thakkar on April 1, urging the rapid implementation of corrective measures "before someone is killed or seriously injured."
Too late. The next evening at sundown, Nelson Malave of Davie got a green light on South Miami Avenue, drove his 1989 Ford into the intersection, and was broadsided by a 1991 Volvo traveling at about 40 miles per hour along SW Seventh Street. The driver of the Volvo, Susan Diaz, was thrown clear of her car and wound up in the hospital with a fractured clavicle and head injuries. (Several bystanders thought she was dead.) Diaz, who's recovering at home, says she can't remember anything that happened between the time she left her job at Barnett Bank on Brickell Avenue and the moment she awoke in the hospital the next morning.