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Somber Signs – Moved memorials upset families; MDOT official cites safety concerns

Teresa Lawrence has been a first responder and volunteerfirefighter for 12 years, and chief of the Ruth Volunteer FireDepartment for around six years. But one call on June 13, 2007,stands out more than any of the others.

It was a day that would change her life and that of her familyforever. Her son Shannon Lawrence, 23, had had a wreck on the wayto his job as a welder’s assistant.

“It woke me up from a dead sleep and I knew it was him. I knewhe was already gone because I heard them call for the coroner,” shesaid.

Shannon’s death in a tragic car accident on Highway 583 came aweek to the day after the death of his friend and co-worker EdKing, 24, whose fatal wreck occurred less than a half-mile fromwhere Shannon’s was.

The grief-stricken families and communities brought crosses,wreaths, and personal effects to mark the spots where the younglives ended on what to date has been 2007’s most fatal road inLincoln County.

“I think it was more or less comfort for us that was the reasonwe put the memorial there,” Lawrence said.

But on Aug. 30, workers from the Mississippi Department ofTransportation were ordered to pick up any of the memorials in theright-of-way. King’s and Lawrence’s were not the only ones; fourother memorials were also removed.

“That was the roughest day I’ve ever spent with the highwaydepartment and I’ve been here 26 years,” said Superintendent IRobert “Nubby” Case, who handled the actual removal of thememorials. “That was a pretty hard pill for me to swallow, to do itin a county where you live with the people.”

King’s mother Gay King said she and her husband were livid whenthey heard from the Lawrences that their son’s memorial cross hadbeen taken down.

“That cross represents a lot to us and about Edward’s life,” shesaid. “Plus, if someone comes through there wide open they mightslow down. It was out of the way, and I don’t see why it caused aproblem.”

MDOT officials said the memorials, as well as other signs inwhat they term “the right-of-way” can be taken up because theyinterfere with grass mowers.

“The official policy is that when we go out to mow theright-of-way that they need to be removed. Unfortunately, they’rean encroachment,” said Benny Holmes, MDOT Assistant DistrictEngineer for operations. “If they’re in the way of the mowing, theywill be removed.”

King said she spoke with Holmes about the situation.

“I asked him if he had children, and he said he did. I said, ‘Ihope you never have to lose one. That puts you in a whole differentballgame,'” she said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the right of way at both King’s andLawrence’s accident sites had not been mowed.

King said she spoke with others about the situation.

“I went through quite a few people. I finally spoke with(Southern District Transportation Commissioner) Mr. Wayne Brown,and he was really nice and sympathetic, and we talked for a longtime,” said King. “He said it was against state law but theyoverlook it because people have to have their grieving time.”

District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith said there currently is nolegislation to dictate where memorials can or cannot go on the roadshoulders or what constitutes right-of-way.

“There are many answers to that question, but under current lawthere are no restrictions on putting them out there,” she said.”They just tell us if it’s in the right-of-way, they’re going totake it up.”

She cited Senate Bill 2131, which was proposed by Sen. BobDearing of Natchez, that would allow memorial markers within theright of way with certain restrictions.

“That legislation has been introduced but has never passed,”said Hyde-Smith, adding the 2007 session was not the first time ithas been addressed.

In discussing their removal, Holmes also said the memorialscould be a distraction and a safety hazard.

“They’re encroaching on state property and could be adistraction for the traveling public,” he said. “An accidentoccurred there that was a fatality and it could cause anotheraccident that could be a fatality.”

King said when she and her husband Harold were building thecross, they researched the guidelines for mailboxes, which areallowed to be in the right-of-way.

“When we built it we built it on a 4×4 post. We didn’t concreteit down, we just put it in the ground,” she said. “We didn’t wantto endanger any more lives.”

Some of the families of the deceased were irate that they werenot warned that the memorial items would be taken up.

“The right thing to have done would have been to either contactthe families or put an article in the local papers explaining thereasons for giving the orders to remove them,” Lawrence said.

Meanwhile, Holmes said it was an insurmountable task to locateall the contacts for the memorial sites.

“There are so many out there it would be impossible for us tolocate the owners,” he said. “But we take them back to the areaheadquarters and they are there for the family to come pick up ifthey so wish.”

King and Lawrence both felt the disregard for the grievingfamilies was still inexcusable.

“That’s how I’m having to deal with it – it’s all I have left ofmy son and their taking it down isn’t right,” King said. “I wishthey’d let us have our time to grieve. I don’t have words toexplain it.”

Families wonder if MDOT might have done some of their cleaningof the roadways of 583 to detract attention from the danger of theroad. At this point there have been more fatalities in LincolnCounty on Highway 583 in 2007 than on Interstate 55 in all of2006.

“Possibly they’re being removed because it shows the public howdangerous Highway 583 is,” said Lawrence.

MDOT officials, who have since told the families they canreplace the memorials a certain amount of footage from the road,deny that speculation.

“It has nothing to do with that,” said Holmes. “They were in theright-of-way.”