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Students hit on parkway; official quits

Romney faults snow removal performance

Governor Mitt Romney demanded the resignation of a state official yesterday hours after four West Roxbury High School students were struck by a pickup truck while walking to class in the busy travel lanes of the VFW Parkway.

The accident occurred just days after their headmaster asked for better snow removal on nearby sidewalks and crosswalks.

''Our focus has to be on public safety," said the governor. ''That comes first, and there really can't be any latitude on that front."

Romney blamed Katherine F. Abbott, commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Recreation, for failing to clear the snow, but some environmentalists accused the governor of grandstanding in his termination of Abbott, whom they considered to be highly effective in managing the parks. Abbott handed in her resignation yesterday afternoon.

''The administration's tactics of severe underfunding and then heaping criticism on DCR management functions is a cheap shot and deserves to be opposed by all who care for the parks," said James Gomes, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. ''Kathy Abbott has taken seriously the job of improving the Department of Conservation and Recreation, perhaps too seriously for some in the governor's office."

A state representative also accused the governor of trying to deflect attention from criticism of his own job performance.

''He's just making an example of her," said Representative James Marzilli, Democrat of Arlington. ''It's not surprising in a week where Gillette has merged and the governor has been getting battered around for job loss in the state. It's not leadership to deny adequate funding for agencies and then blame people you appoint, especially considering how much improvement has occurred at that agency under her watch."

The Department of Conservation and Recreation is responsible for snow removal on the state-owned parkway and its adjacent sidewalks. Donald Pellegrini, headmaster at West Roxbury High, said he had called the department Monday asking it to clear sidewalks and crosswalks around the school's entrance, but the work was not done until Wednesday, and even then a sidewalk across the street from the school was left buried in snow.

One of the students injured in the accident was in serious condition at Children's Hospital last night. The other three were in good condition.

Even before State Police concluded their investigation at the accident scene, a spokesman for the Office of Environmental Affairs, which oversees the Department of Conservation and Recreation, arrived on site, took blame on behalf of the agency, and unconditionally accepted fault.

''That's a situation that's clearly unacceptable," said Joseph O'Keefe, the Office of Environmental Affairs spokesman, as crews furiously shoveled snow near the road where the State Police accident reconstruction team was working. ''It doesn't excuse what happened, and the children, or the students, that were hurt deserve to be treated better than they have been."

In a subsequent interview, O'Keefe promised the walks would be cleared. ''The buck stops here," he said. ''This is something we have responsibility for. We admit there was an operational failure. We're going to take corrective action."

The students injured in the accident, who ranged in age from 14 to 17, suffered a variety of broken bones and other trauma. Natasha Nunez, was listed in serious condition at Children's Hospital. Two others, Katherine Bonilla and Dennis Nunez, were admitted to the hospital in good condition. The fourth, Rosann Williams, was slated for discharge after treatment, according to Children's spokeswoman Andrea Duggan. The Nunezes are siblings and sophomores. Bonilla is a freshman, while Williams is a junior.

The driver of the pickup, 45-year-old Brian Sheehan of Boston was not charged. State Police said they would not assign blame until completing an initial investigation.

Sheehan's 1995 Toyota pickup, headed outbound, in a southwest direction on the same side of the road as the school, struck the students about 7:30 a.m. as they walked toward the vehicle in the right-hand travel lane. The impact broke the vehicle's right front headlight and smashed the right side of the windshield. The sidewalk in the vicinity of the accident, less than 10 feet away, was plowed. It was not clear at what point the students had begun walking on the road or why they were not on the sidewalk.

Workers near the scene of the accident yesterday said students regularly walk in the parkway and cross randomly, even when there is no snow and despite the presence of a marked crosswalk and traffic light.

''You know young kids; sometimes they don't care. You have to watch for them," said Delon Severe, food service manager of the Brook Farm Rehab and Nursing Center across the street. He looked out the building's window just after the collision and saw Bonilla, Williams, and the Nunezes in the street and Sheehan running back toward them.

''They never use the sidewalk; they always use the street," said Nick Azar, who watches students enter and leave West Roxbury High from the Parkway Mobil gasoline station directly across from the school entrance.

Susan Friel, a program director at the high school, disagreed, saying: ''They walk on the sidewalks when they are there. We just haven't had them."

The accident site was about 20 yards from the school entrance. Some of the 1,300 students drive or take buses, while pedestrians can reach the school via a crosswalk at stop lights directly across from the entrance. They halt both inbound and outbound traffic on the parkway. Yesterday, though, the sidewalk along the inbound lanes was covered by snow, and the path to the crosswalk connecting it to the school entrance was blocked by a thigh-high snowbank.

The four students who were struck, like many of their classmates, took an MBTA bus to a stop about a half-mile away on Belgrade Avenue. Those students, as well as those living within walking distance of the school, walked through a neighborhood and then had to decide between continuing in the parkway's incoming or outgoing traffic lanes or crossing them to the one shoveled sidewalk, which ran along the outbound lanes and connected to the school driveway.

''I think we should get a shuttle bus," said Ronny Pimentel, a sophomore from Roslindale who frequently takes the T bus. His classmate, junior Cesar Rijo of Dorchester, said: ''They need a crossing guard here or something. This is a major street."

O'Keefe said the Department of Conservation and Recreation should have also considered such alternatives.

''There are some questions about the placing of those pedestrian crossings," O'Keefe said. ''Human nature being what it is, you don't travel the extra steps to get to the safest point; you cross where it is the most convenient. It remains an operational failure of DCR to not recognize that and correct that, whether it means moving the pedestrian crossing light or putting in a pedestrian bridge. That would serve not only West Roxbury High School, but there's also concern about people crossing to use the DCR skating rink that's also on that side of the parkway."

Romney, speaking to reporters at the State House after the accident yesterday afternoon, said he would replace Abbott on an interim basis with Steve Pritchard, chief of staff at the Office of Environmental Affairs. The governor said he had previously had discussions with Abbott about problems within the department.

''After the storm, I drove around with DCR and identified areas I wanted to see cleared," Romney said. ''I pointed out the weaknesses and the Highway Department had to step in to clear up the problems. So, over the last couple of days, it's been pretty clear that the management structure has not been geared to carrying out the operational implementation you would expect for something like a snowstorm."

He added: ''I'm very disappointed and very sorry at the great loss that these kids are going to experience as they go through rehabilitation and recovery."

Abbott refused comment through a spokesman yesterday.

Environmental groups had praise for Abbott.

''Kathy has been one of the leaders in this state for decades advocating for first-class public parks and forests and recreational opportunities for people," said Gomes. ''For Governor Romney to remove her from his administration is both sad and disturbing."

James McCaffrey, director of the Sierra Club's Massachusetts chapter, said: ''Commissioner Abbott is a steadfast and dedicated public servant. Despite a continued decline in resources and funding from the administration, Commissioner Abbott brought new vision and leadership to our state parks agencies. This is a great loss for our public parks system, and clear progress was made under Abbott's leadership."

Abbott holds a master's degree from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and spent 12 years working in various state agencies, from park ranger to deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Management. Before taking over the helm at DCR, she was president of the Island Alliance, a advocacy group that raised more than $10 million for the Boston Harbor island national park area.

Tracy Jan and Beth Daley of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Janette Neuwahl contributed to this report. Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com.  

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