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A Deadly Mix: Students, Trucks, and a Missing Crossing Guard in Harlem

Friday, March 01, 2013 - 08:05 PM

A police officer directs traffic at 117th Street and First Ave a day after six-year old Amar Diarrassouba was fatally struck by a truck there. The normal crossing guard has been suspended.

Parents held their childrens' hands a little tighter as they picked them up from PS 155 on Friday afternoon. Danger felt closer than usual here, and tragedy was the topic of conversation after six-year old Amar Diarrassouba died on the corner, struck and killed by a turning tractor trailer truck.

"I was the one who picked him up off the middle of First Avenue," said Melanie Canon, a mother who was standing in front of the school a day after the accident.

"He was face down," she said of Amar, who'd been walking to school with his 9 year-old brother. "His brother was standing right next to him. The little boy said, 'Help.' I picked him up by the back of his jacket. He was lifeless, limp. I saw a big pool of blood."

Canon is a doctor but there was nothing she could do. Amar--praised by neighbors as being kind to all--had no pulse.

Canon's daughter is a 3rd grader who attends nearby PS 206 and passes the same intersection every morning. Like the parents outside the PS 155, she said it's a treacherous walk for a child. "The paths to the schools need to be safe."

Outside the school, where the flag waved limply at half-mast, parents complained about the heavy volume of trucks, especially since 2009, when the East River Plaza mall opened a block away.

Tara French lives in the neighborhood and walks her three children to the school each day. "It's dangerous," she said." First Avenue is a dangerous street for them to be crossing. And now we have the mall so we have all the 18-wheelers coming up First Avenue."

Jaime Barton agreed. "The trucks should have at least another way to go for deliveries, that's how I feel," he said. The truck that struck Amar was coming from the direction of the mall, heading west on 117th street, and hit the child as it turned right onto First Avenue toward the Tri-Borough Bridge, which is seven blocks north. 117th Street is a narrow, one-way side street.

"Even 116th is a bigger intersection because it's two-way. This is one-way," Barton said as her daughter interrupted to boast about a recent birthday, her 6th.

A crossing guard was supposed to be at the intersection. Police are investigating her whereabouts. "What we're saying is that she was not on post when the accident happened which was  0754--that's all we can say at this time is that she wasn't there," Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told reporters Friday.

While some parents said that crossing guard was frequently late or absent, others didn't blame her. Lydia Soto, who has a 13-year old at the school, said that parents had complained in the past about the guard to the school. Standing with French, the parents said that several years ago--the date was uncertain--parents had petitioned to have a different crossing guard replaced. The new guard on Second Avenue was "fabulous," they said.

Department of Education spokesperson Marge Fienberg said, "The principal of the school has not received any complaints about this guard and generally, when there are complaints, the safety agents provide parents with the number of the local precinct.

The NYPD is responsible for hiring crossing guards. The department has said that retaining crossing guards can be difficult because the job is only part time, several hours in the morning and several in the afternoon, and, according to the NYPD website, can pay below $10 per hour . 

A spokesperson at the NYPD said the department would have to research whether there had been past complaints about the crossing guard at PS 155.

The city Department of Transportation oversees the rules of the roads, such as where trucks are permitted to drive or when special turn signals or lane markings are needed. The department has declined repeated requests over the past two months for data on the number and locations of children who were hit by vehicles in New York City.

Amar's family wouldn't speak about the accident. But outside the family's home, a man identifying himself as the boy's uncle said of the tragedy, "It is God." He said the rest of the family was taking the same approach.

-With WNYC News

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