After Plum Orchard bike fatality, victim mourned by neighbors: 'He was like family'
Early in the evening on Monday, Oct. 10, a small group of mourners gathered in the neutral ground near the corner of Chef Menteur Highway and Werner Drive in New Orleans East, around a small wooden cross and a tangle of bright blue balloons.
Most were cashiers or customers at Eastside Cash & Carry, and they were there to honor the life of another regular of the Plum Orchard gas station corner store. Remembered affectionately by many as “Uncle,” “Noonie,” or “Sippio,” he was killed at this spot early Monday morning, struck by a driver while riding a bicycle.
“Every time he come in this store, he make us laugh,” said Jessica Jordan, a cashier. “He was like family.”
As cars raced past on either side of the narrow grassy strip, the group set down a couple of plastic-wrapped oatmeal pies, a favorite of their passed friend. They released a handful of balloons and watched them float up above the powerlines as the sun set and the stretch of road edged into darkness.
At 1:15 a.m. on Monday, police officers responded to the crash here, where a small residential street torn up for road work meets the six lane-wide Chef Menteur The intersection is bound by empty lots, except for the gas station and store. The crash happened right in front of it: police determined that an adult male bicyclist was traveling northbound across the intersection when the driver of a Jeep Grand Cherokee, traveling westbound down Chef Menteur Highway, struck him. He was pronounced dead at the scene, according to an initial report from the New Orleans Police Department.
As of Tuesday morning, the NOPD and the Coroner’s Office had not yet released the victim’s name. Police said the driver is cooperating with the investigation. And while the mourners at Eastside Cash & Carry knew the victim well – he hung around there every day, they said – they couldn’t confirm his given name.
Security camera footage of the incident, provided to and viewed by a WWNO reporter, showed the victim getting dragged under the vehicle along the curb in front of the gas station.
Gina Thomas, a longtime friend of the victim, was there when it happened.
“She hit him hard. You knocked all his shoes off his feet,” she said, with tears running down her face. “To see him take his last breaths in my face – that image is stuck with me for life.”
Others said this stretch of Chef Menteur needs better lighting at night, and this isn’t the first time they’ve heard of people walking or biking getting hit and killed by car drivers here.
In the window between 2010 and 2020 – the latest data available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – one other bicyclist was killed on Chef Menteur, inside of the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. During that same time period, 11 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes along the road, including one at the same Werner Drive intersection in 2016. In 2020, 6 bicyclists were killed in crashes across New Orleans.
In line with a national trend of rising traffic fatalities, more people are dying on New Orleans roads than in past years, a situation described as a “public health and safety crisis” in a joint press release issued last month by the Department of Public Works and the New Orleans Health Department.
Last year, there were 69 traffic fatalities in New Orleans – for all road users, including drivers – the highest number since 2004 and a 35% increase from 2020, according to the release, which cites state data. DPW and NOHD officials credited speeding, drug and alcohol impairment, aggressive and distracted driving, as well as low seat belt use as reasons for the uptick.
“These tragedies are nearly all preventable with smart road design, traffic calming measures and individual safe driving behaviors,” the release said.
This latest bicyclist fatality comes after city officials voted to remove several miles of protected bike lanes across town in Algiers in September, after months of heated debate. Bike safety advocates said they fear the move could spell trouble for the city’s plans to expand bike infrastructure in other neighborhoods. No upcoming projects are planned for New Orleans East, though a vision for potential future bike lanes there is shown in the city’s Bikeway Blueprint map and includes a protected bike lane on Chef Menteur.
Thomas knew the victim for years, and said they always looked out for one another.
“You couldn’t help but love him, because he made sure of it,” she said.
As the neutral ground vigil came to a close, she and the other mourners waited for a pause in the stream of cars barrelling past. When the flow of headlights slowed for a moment, they dashed across three lanes of traffic back to the store.
“I’ll be scared of cars and crossing the street from now on,” Thomas said.