By Michael Campbell, News Editor
PRINCE GEORGE – With National Work Zone Awareness Week serving as a backdrop, a Prince George man killed nearly 60 years ago while working in the county had his named added to the state’s memorial to those lost while working on the commonwealth’s roads.
Tuesday, the family of Robert James Butler gathered at the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Workers’ Memorial on Afton Mountain in Albemarle to recognize the sacrifice made by Butler and dozens of other state transportation workers that lost their lives in work zone and other related accidents.
The Disputanta native was working as a highway foreman on Oct. 23, 1959, when he was struck and killed by an errant vehicle. Newspaper accounts of the accident reported that the driver tried to pass slower traffic, drove through a wooden barricade and fatally struck Butler, who died at the age of 66.
Nearly 60 years later, the memory of Butler remains close to the hearts of his family and grandchildren, who shared how their grandfather’s untimely death served to reinforce the necessity to drive safely through work zones.
“My parents would comment about the need to be observant in work zones,” Jennie Wells, one of Butler’s granddaughters said. “I am more aware and passed that on to my sons. They know the history and the consequences.”
Another one of Butler’s granddaughters, Lisa Tuohey reflected on the times she and her family had with her grandfather, special memories of a man taken from them far too soon.
“The cousins would spend a week on our grandfather’s farm; it was magical,” she shared. “At the end of a work day, we’d run to the end of the long driveway and greet granddad as he came home from work. He jumped out of the DOT truck and turned to wave goodbye to his crew before greeting us with a hug.”
“All of this came to an abrupt halt when our family received the tragic news of granddad’s senseless death,” Tuohey said. “Our world had been shattered and would never bee the same.”
For VDOT Richmond District Engineer Bart Thrasher, “This tragedy, even many years later, emphasizes the dangers VDOT workers face on Virginia’s roads each day,” he remarked.
In total, 134 names have been engraved on the Albemarle memorial, with the employees listed having died between 1928 and 2012.
Tuesday’s ceremony was part of the agency’s annual observance of Work Zone Awareness Week, which correlates with National Work Zone Awareness Week in America, serving to bring national attention to motorist and worker safety and mobility issues in work zones.
According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2015, there was a total of 700 work zone fatalities, up five percent from the previous year.
Additionally, the number of worker fatalities in road construction sites rose in 2015 to 130, up nine percent over 2014.
NHTSA data also showed work zone injuries increased by nearly 15 percent in 2015, with over 35,000 recorded injured during that year of data.
Specifically, in Virginia, VDOT reported there were 2,600 work zone crashes resulting in 1,416 injuries and seven deaths last year.
“The VDOT Workers’ Memorial and the addition of Mr. Butler’s name are a sobering reminder that the victims of work zone crashes are not just statistics,” said VDOT Commissioner Charles Kilpatrick. “We continue to make work zone safety our priority every day. We owe it to the names on the Workers’ Memorial and to all of our hardworking contractors and employees.”
Through VDOT’s efforts, they remind drivers to expect the unexpected, follow posted road signs, focus and minimize distractions, urging drivers to be patient behind the wheel and to check road conditions using VDOT’s 511 service. Additionally, the transportation agency asks drivers not to speed, tailgate or change lanes inside work zones.
For Tuohey and Butler’s family, the hole left by their grandfather’s death was immense.
“Life changed for all of us after that,” she shared. “The farm was sold, but I think each of us drove back by many times to remember the fond days we had as children with our granddad. He was a remarkable man who left us too soon.”
“We hope in some way this memorial will be a reminder to all that those are not just names,” Tuohey shared.
Virginia is among several state transportation agencies that have employee memorials, including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Wisconsin.
Copyright 2017 by Womack Publishing
Photos Courtesy of Virginia Department of Transportation