A bouquet of roses, another of sunflowers, impatiens plants and a candles left in memorial contrasted with a newly erected electronic sign across the street on Montauk Highway directing drivers to “Slow Down” in Quogue Tuesday morning.
Flowers and the warning sign both honor, in their way, the five people who died in a violent crash near the intersection with Quogue Street East on Saturday night.
At a press conference in front of Village Police headquarters on Tuesday, July 27, Quogue Police Chief Christopher Isola described the horrific scene that played out on the village streets just days before.
A Quogue Village Police officer was on patrol on Montauk Highway driving east at around 11:19 p.m. when a Nissan driven by Justin Mendez, 25, of Brookhaven hurtled past, headed west. According to the chief, the officer, whose identity has been withheld, estimated the Nissan’s speed at approximately 55 mph, where the limit on that section of the rural road is 40 mph.
The officer turned his patrol car around, but dashcam evidence shows that the Nissan was already out of sight by then.
Heading west, and rounding a curve in the road, the officer came upon the carnage in a matter of seconds, Chief Isola said.
The Nissan had drifted across the center line on the curve and collided head-on with an Uber vehicle, a gray Toyota Prius, carrying a group of four friends going out for a night of dancing.
Five of the six occupants of the two vehicles were killed.
One passenger in the Prius, 22-year-old Brianna Maglio of Garden City, was still alive. She was transported to Peconic Bay Medical Center, then later to Southside University Hospital in Bay Shore. As of Tuesday morning, her condition was still listed as critical, Chief Isola said.
The Uber driver, Farhan Zahid, 32, a father of three from Bay Shore, and his passengers, brothers James P. Farrell, 25, and Michael O. Farrell, 20, and Ryan Kiess, 25, all of Manhasset, were pronounced dead at the scene.
Mr. Mendez, the driver of the Nissan, was rushed to Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, where he later died.
Police said the front seat occupants in the Prius and Mr. Mendez in the Nissan were all wearing seat belts, but it is currently unclear whether passengers in the rear of the Prius were wearing seat belts.
A patrol officer and detective accompanied Mr. Mendez to the hospital, police spokesman Lieutenant Dan Hartman said on Monday. “There has never been a mention of alcohol,” he emphasized, ruling out a potential cause behind the crash. He said a detective and an officer wanted to question Mr. Mendez about why he’d been driving so fast.
Chief Isola said that if an autopsy is performed, the results would be under the purview of the Suffolk County medical examiner’s office. He said the investigation into the crash does not have a focus on criminality. With Mr. Mendez dead, there’s no defendant. A quantity of marijuana was found in the car’s glove compartment.
Chief Isola said one witness reported that Mr. Mendez had turned off the lights in the speeding Nissan, but the chief said that witness had yet to be interviewed by investigators. Where he was coming from and where he was going are still under investigation, the chief said.
The chief emphasized that police will exhaust every effort to determine what caused the crash.
And, as investigators work, the community joined with stricken survivors, endeavoring to console them during a heart-wrenching time.
On Tuesday morning, Mayor Peter Sartorius spoke of “how devastated we all are in Quogue.” He noted, “Our trauma doesn’t compare with the grief the families of the five victims who were killed in the accident are experiencing, and the family of the one young woman who is still in critical condition in the hospital. I want them to know that we in Quogue send our deepest condolences to them and I want them to know we are grieving with them.”
“Brianna is getting better — that’s what we have to believe.”
At times through tears, Kurt Kiess, the father of Ryan Kiess, said he and his family, friends and “the whole town of Manhasset” are praying for the sole survivor, who is Ryan’s girlfriend of six years.
“Bri and Ryan, they were the cutest couple you ever saw,” the grieving father said in a phone interview on Monday morning, “Ryan, 6 foot 3, and Bri, 5 foot tall. They loved each other. They were doing the right things — they were building up their careers. They were gonna move forward, and it’s not going to happen. We loved Bri. We loved James, we loved Michael. We loved everybody in that car.”
James and Michael Farrell grew up just yards away from the Kiess home. The three boys attended elementary and high school together, the older pair playing together on the lacrosse team.
“They were all like brothers — they were great friends,” Mr. Kiess said. “They had the whole world in front of them, and this happened.”
He noted that the families of the other victims asked for privacy and declined requests for interviews.
The young group had gathered at Mr. Kiess’s new home in Remsenburg on Saturday night. After a family celebration, the friends called an Uber. “They wanted to go out dancing from my house in Remsenburg. They’re walking out my living room, 10:30, to have a good time.” He gave everyone a hug.
“They did nothing wrong,” he said.
“The whole town of Manhasset is grieving,” Mr. Kiess said Monday morning, speaking of the heartbreak radiating through the community. The local school district has made grief counselors available, and Mr. Kiess spoke of strangers coming up to him on Main Street offering condolences and hugs.
“People I never met before in my life are coming up and hugging me. Nobody knows what to say,” he said. The next night, Tuesday, a prayer service was held at Saint Mary’s Church in Manhasset for the grieving survivors.
On Monday, Mr. Kiess cried, as he said, “I had a good son. I’m proud of my son. I love my son.” Abject sadness turned to anger, however, as he spoke of the possible cause of the crash.
While police had listed excessive speed as a factor, Mr. Kiess spoke of the curve in the road at the site of the tragedy. “It’s a severe curve on a road that should be upgraded to a more safe road. The amount of traffic going through there now, it’s totally different than it was 40 years ago. The population on the East End and these towns, they gotta think about raising taxes and fixing those roads a little and making them a little straighter, a little safer for all of us and maybe … maybe,” he said, his voice weighed by tears, “it might help somebody else.
“I saw somebody quoted saying that curve is no more dangerous than any other curve,” Mr. Kiess continued. “I don’t think any curve should be dangerous at all.”
The crash is currently under investigation by Quogue Village Police detectives, with assistance from State Police, Southampton Town Police and Westhampton Beach Village Police.
Montauk Highway was closed from Old Depot Road to Quogue Street East through Saturday night until around 10 a.m. Sunday morning. Because of the number of people who died in the crash, the New York State attorney general’s office and the National Transportation Safety Board also are investigating.
Mayor Sartorius reached out to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, and a traffic study is underway, Chief Isola said during the press conference. Montauk Highway is County Road 80 and under county jurisdiction in terms of infrastructure.
Police maintain the accident was caused by the speeding driver — the curve is “not a hot spot,” the chief emphasized, pointing out that Quogue Police “aggressively” enforce speed limits in his village.
There was a fatal accident near the curve, on the other side of the intersection, in 1997.
Most officers in the Quogue Village Police Department have never responded to a fatal car accident, much less the grim scene they confronted on Montauk Highway Saturday night. Both cars were crumpled and debris was strewn across the roadway and into the woods surrounding the devastation. The Southampton Village Police K9 unit was called in to check the surrounding area, in case there were additional victims that had been ejected from the cars.
On Sunday, officers who responded to the wreckage, worked the fatal scene, and notified the victims’ loved ones were given an opportunity to speak with crisis counselors.
The Quogue Fire Department heavy rescue crew responded to the scene to extricate the victims, while ambulance companies from Westhampton and East Quogue assisted with the victims on Saturday night.
A crash reconstruction team from the State Police worked the scene for several hours, Lt. Hartman recounted. They will assemble a report, offering theories about the reasons for the crash using data drawn from digitized plotting of the scene. “We estimated speed based on the crash and the condition of the cars,” Lt. Hartman said of his department’s preliminary investigation.
In addition to Mr. Kiess, some community members have called the curve dangerous. In a letter to the editor this week, reader Marilyn DiCarlo-Ames said the danger of the curve had been discussed during meetings of the Village Board in the past and theorized that a collision was “inevitable.”
Responding to the reader’s letter via email, Mayor Sartorius wrote, “I do not have any recollection of a meeting of that sort while I have been Mayor (roughly 12 years). Nor do the trustees with longer tenure on the Board than mine.”
Lt. Hartman pointed out that on Monday, officials erected an electronic sign on the east side of the curve and while that was underway, in about 45 minutes the lieutenant said, “I watched several hundred cars go by. If you take the curve at the recommended speed limit, there’s nothing dangerous.” The chief echoed the assertion on Tuesday.