Advocates call for safety after 2 pedestrians killed in Chattanooga

Mother and son, 1, were killed on sidewalk at north end of Walnut Street Bridge

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/  Pedestrians cross the intersection of Forest and Frazier Avenues on Monday.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Pedestrians cross the intersection of Forest and Frazier Avenues on Monday.

Note: This story was updated Dec. 1 to correct the spellings of the names of the victims.

Shocked by a car crash Saturday that killed two people and left one in critical condition, community members Monday called on the city to make Chattanooga streets safer amid a spike in pedestrian roadway deaths this year.

The crash on Frazier Avenue killed two people — Ana Posso Rodriguez, 41, and her son, Jonathan Devia, 1.

The third person hit, 40-year-old Octavio Devia Paz, sustained life-threatening injuries, police said.

The family had been visiting Tennessee from Jacksonville, Florida, for the first time, a family friend said.

The driver in the crash, 44-year-old Randy Vega from Florida, now faces two charges of vehicular homicide by impairment and charges of aggravated vehicular assault, driving under the influence, reckless endangerment, reckless driving and failing to maintain a lane.


Vega was also taken to a hospital with injuries from the crash and was still there for observation as of Monday morning, Sgt. Victor Miller said.

Though he hadn't yet been taken to jail by Monday, Vega was under police custody at the hospital and will be booked into the county facility when he is discharged, Miller said.

Another person involved in the crash, who was driving a Nissan truck, was identified by police as Patrick McGinty.

Witnesses who spoke to the Chattanooga Times Free Press said the crash appeared to begin as an apparent road rage incident involving the driver's van and a truck, though police have not confirmed that.

"CPD's Traffic Unit continues to investigate the traffic crash on Frazier Avenue to include learning the exact circumstances that occurred before, during, and after the crash," Miller said in an email responding to questions about possible road rage or racing being a factor in the crash.

David Smotherman, owner of the Winder Binder bookstore on Frazier, saw footage from a camera pointed at the scene of the crash. It showed the two cars speeding down the street toward Veterans Bridge — Smotherman estimated the vehicles were going between 40 and 50 miles per hour. Neither car seemed to be letting the other merge into its lane, according to Smotherman.

Vega's van, in the right lane, then tried to pull over in front of the truck, Smotherman said, and lost control.

"The father tried to push them out of the way, but they didn't have enough time," he said by phone. "It was just totally avoidable."

(READ MORE: With streets built mostly for cars, some want Chattanooga to make way for pedestrians)

Bert Kuyrkendall, a transportation consultant who previously worked with the city, said in a phone interview that the roadway design of Frazier Avenue at the site of crash — two lanes in either direction — makes incidents like the one Saturday more likely.

"It's basically set up for cars to drive quickly through there, even though it's a highly, highly active area for pedestrians and bicyclists," said Kuyrkendall, who also sits on the board of Bike Walk Tennessee. "It's a real mismatch between the atmosphere, the context and the way the road is engineered."

Jon Jon Wesolowski, a pedestrian advocate who is associated with the Chattanooga Urbanist Society — a local group that calls for more equitable urban design — said in a phone interview Frazier Avenue should be redesigned for one lane of traffic each way.

"Even if it was a drunk driver, even if it was a road rage incident, if there was just a lane in each direction, they would have been more likely to hit a car before they were able to ever pick up speed," Wesolowski said. "What we should be focusing on is, it's OK for cars to go to body shops. It's not OK to send babies in body bags."

'Life of the party'

An online fundraiser for the victims had raised nearly $4,000 by Monday afternoon.

Yasira Molina, a family friend helping organize the fundraiser, said Posso Rodriguez's three daughters hope to use the money to transport the bodies to Florida for a memorial service. If they don't raise enough, they will use it to travel to Tennessee for a simple service then return to Florida for a bigger celebration of life, Molina said.

Two of Posso Rodriguez's daughters were in Tennessee with the family at the time of the crash, according to Molina.

"We came to spend a vacation with my mother and my little brother, and we returned without them, leaving us with an emptiness and an immense pain," Posso Rodriguez's daughters said in a statement shared by Molina in a phone interview. "That's why we ask people not to drive under the influence of any substance or alcohol, and we are asking for justice for Ana Posso and my little brother."

Posso Rodriguez's daughters, ages 16 to 20, really depended on her, Molina said.

"Anna was always the life of the party," Molina said in the daughters' statement. "Like, everywhere she went she would just make friends."

After having three daughters, she really wanted a son, Molina said. Her daughters spoiled Jonathan, who was 22 months old.

"He was just so happy, and like any toddler, he was just so full of life," Molina said.

At the scene

Jessica Dumitru, who owns a building that suffered damage in the crash, was working next door at Art Creations when she felt the impact.

"The sound that it made, the tire squeal and that boom," she said. "As soon as I felt it, I knew immediately what happened."

She went out and saw the pedestrians in what she called a horrific scene.

"It was evident at the time, immediately, that the mother and the child were probably gone," Dumitru said.

Dumitru said it's too early to tell when the Walnut Bridge Gift Shop will be able to reopen, but she estimates repairs will take two to three months.

"They hit our building at a very high rate of speed," Dumitru said by phone Monday. "The pillar that they hit is a structural pillar. ... We're looking at significant damage, a high ticket price, and probably weeks and weeks of repairs."

Sami Kiperman, who runs the Walnut Bridge Gift Shop with his wife and daughter, said the damage to the property at the corner of Frazier and Forest avenues is "pretty bad."

They've rented the space for three years, he said. His wife was at the scene.

"It was really sad," he said.

Spike in deaths

Posso Rodriguez and her son make 17 pedestrians who have been killed this year in Chattanooga, according to statistics from the police department.

That's nearly triple the pedestrian deaths reported last year at this time. Six pedestrians were killed in Chattanooga as of November 2022.

But the number of non-fatal accidents is around the same. Between Jan. 1 and Nov. 20 in 2022, 115 pedestrians were struck by cars. This year, there have been 116, police data shows.

Wesolowski said the city needs to publicly acknowledge the increased deaths and work toward a solution.

"Imagine, if you will, there was some sort of environmental anomaly that was taking people's lives, and we didn't understand what was happening," Wesolowski said. "You would see action taken right away."

Chattanooga City Council Vice Chair Jenny Hill, of North Chattanooga, who called Saturday's crash devastating, said the city and public should both work to ensure roadway safety.

"There is a civic responsibility there," said Hill, whose district covers the site of Saturday's crash. "That doesn't preclude, that doesn't alleviate the responsibility of our city to consider how to make things as safe as possible, but I do believe it goes hand-in-hand."

Hill said drivers have a significant responsibility to ensure safety.

"When you get behind the wheel of a car, you are operating a piece of very heavy machinery," Hill said. "You have a significant responsibility on your shoulders, and we should consider that."

Ben Taylor, deputy administrator for the Chattanooga Division of Transportation, said in a phone interview, speaking about pedestrian deaths in general and not Saturday's crash specifically, that all road users need to be respectful of each other.

"Folks driving need to be driving defensively," Taylor said. "Folks on other modes should be sure they're aware of where they have the right-of-way and taking appropriate actions to be sure they're paying attention to their surroundings."

He said drivers have a responsibility to drive safely, given the potential danger of crashes.

"Most of it is on the driver. The driver has the heavy vehicle in this situation, and it's up to them to obey all road signs that are out there," Taylor said.

Catalyst for change

Dumitru said her building has now been hit eight times since 2000 and three times at the same spot on the corner of Frazier and Forest. Her insurance has skyrocketed because of the wrecks, she said.

"You've made Walnut Street Bridge the postcard for Chattanooga, and you draw tourists to this area, but then don't protect them," Dumitru said.

Benjamin Fleet, who has lived in a neighborhood off Cherokee Boulevard for seven years, said there aren't enough safety measures for pedestrians in the area considering how many people walk there. The Frazier and Cherokee areas are some of the most walked parts of Chattanooga, Fleet said, but he still makes sure to watch right turn lanes and crossings carefully.

"I hope it gets the city's attention," Fleet said by phone. "I hate that it has to come to tragedies to raise awareness, but I hope there can be some positive that comes out of this for future safety."

Dumitru, other business owners and community members in the area are forming a group focused on safety. Hill agreed to meet with the group, Dumitru said.

Hill said she regularly talks with constituents and businesses, including those on Frazier Avenue, about roadway safety there.

"People's habits have changed. The way that we use our community has changed," Hill said. "We've had a lot of conversations about what the plan is for Frazier Avenue and the North Shore overall.

"I have long been a proponent for considering how we change the traffic pattern on Frazier Avenue," Hill said. "At this point, put everything on the table, and then we can take all of the different stakeholders into account to create something that's the best iteration of what we can do."

(READ MORE: Q&A: Famed city planner Jeff Speck talks walkability in Chattanooga)

Contact Ellen Gerst at egerst@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6319.

Contact Ben Sessoms at bsessoms@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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