Two men from Washington, D.C., died Oct. 21 after being struck by an SUV while standing with their bicycles on the sidewalk in front of The Starboard in Dewey Beach.
Police said the crash occurred about 5 p.m., after a 61-year-old New York man suffered an acute medical event while driving a 2017 Chevrolet Suburban north on Route 1.
Delaware State Police Master Cpl. Michael Austin said when the driver blacked out, his Suburban crossed into the southbound lanes and accelerated, striking James D. Walton, 53, and Richard G. Chittick, 58. Austin said Walton and Chittick were pronounced dead at the scene, and the driver, who was wearing a seatbelt, was taken to Beebe Healthcare.
Austin said the front of the Suburban also hit a utility pole, severing it at ground level, before hitting an unoccupied Jeep and coming to a stop in the restaurant parking lot.
Brian Sparrow, a resident of Falls Church, Va., who owns a house in Rehoboth, said he introduced the two men years ago. He said Walton and Chittick had recently been married.
“They were great guys who loved being around people,” said Sparrow Oct. 23. “They’ve been inseparable ever since they met.”
Sparrow said he met Chittick years ago while bartending in Washington, D.C., and eventually worked for him for a brief period after Chittick started his own construction company.
“It was great. I’d do construction during the day and then bartend at night,” said Sparrow. “We’ve been dear friends ever since.”
Sparrow said there was a brief period a few years back that he and his partner didn’t see Walton and Chittick too often, but after the couple bought a house in Rehoboth, that changed, the friendship was rekindled.
“We’d see them almost every weekend down here at the beach,” he said. “They were two people made for each other.”
Dewey Beach Mayor TJ Redefer said he was sitting on the porch of his Houston Street house, three blocks to the north of the accident on the same side of Route 1, and he heard the crash. It didn’t immediately register what happened, he said, until the first responders went by and then stopped.
Redefer commended the police, EMS and volunteer firefighters who quickly responded, and he also made sure to recognize the efforts of the Starboard staff. Employees immediately came out and told people to stop taking pictures and videos, and then quickly shut down the restaurant for the rest of the evening.
“It was not a place to be carrying on, and they recognized that,” he said.
Steve Montgomery, Starboard owner, said all of the Starboard family has been shaken, and the entire town is mourning the tragic event. There were hugs, tears, and even a few needed cocktails to aid in dealing with accepting what had just happened, he said.
“Our hearts go out to the victims as their lives were taken so innocently and quickly,” wrote Montgomery in an Oct. 23 email. “We will always remember this night and work hard to quickly return to providing the safe and fun entertainment and restaurant so many come to enjoy while in Dewey Beach.”
Montgomery said closing the restaurant was an easy decision.
“Nobody in Dewey Beach was in a mood for the usual fun nightlife,” he said. “We felt it best to close down. Our staff all gathered to be together and support each other on a difficult night.”
For Redefer, this was the first major traffic incident since he was elected mayor a little more than a month ago. This crash seemed to be unavoidable, he said, but he also said he would like to start working with the Delaware Department of Transportation on traffic-calming measures.
“There are a lot of what-ifs,” he said.
Jim Lardear, AAA Mid-Atlantic public and government affairs director, said AAA doesn’t have specific data related to the number of deaths caused by drivers suffering a medical event, but he said he thinks it’s a very small percentage that end in the death of pedestrians. He said modern vehicle technology – vibrating seats, alarm systems – can be used to warn drivers when they begin to swerve, but he said he’s not aware of a system that takes control of a vehicle.
“It’s just a tragic accident,” Lardear said.
In an August 2016 press release, AAA said new test results reveal that automatic emergency braking systems – the safety technology that will soon be standard equipment on 99 percent of vehicles – vary widely in design and performance.
Austin said Oct. 23 the collision reconstruction unit is continuing the investigation and no charges had been filed. Updated information will be released as it becomes available, he said. Route 1 was closed for more than five hours as the crash was investigated.
Austin is asking anyone who witnessed the crash or has any additional information to call Cpl. N. DeMalto at 302-703-3267.
“We want to ensure that we explore and exhaust all investigative leads, especially when it involves an incident of this nature,” said Austin.