Bus passenger speaks out, calls for change after deadly accident
ASPEN – Michael Nickerson believes fate led him to be on the bus that killed Joanie Marie Kocab early morning New Year’s Day.
“It’s just so sad and tragic,” said Nickerson, who called the accident “beyond awful.” “But the weird thing is, there is a reason I was supposed to be on that bus.”
In fact, Nickerson was waiting for a different Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus from Snowmass Village when the one that ultimately struck and killed Kocab pulled up, also headed for Aspen.
“So I got on,” said the 25-year-old, who has lived in Aspen on and off for six years and also attended middle school locally. “And now I have to try and make a change – try to get lights on the highway in that area, and other places.
“If there had been streetlights, we would have seen her, and this wouldn’t have happened.”
According to Colorado State Trooper Graham Thorne, 29-year-old Kocab was killed as she walked in the eastbound bus lane just downvalley from the intersection of Highway 82 and Owl Creek Road. It is still unclear why she was walking on the highway; toxicology results are pending and authorities have no further clues. Thorne said Kocab and her fiancee had a “tiff” before parting ways that evening; he continued on a bus to downtown Basalt while she went back upvalley, though no one is clear about her mode of transportation.
The bus involved in the accident was undergoing a mechanical inspection Tuesday; the bus driver remains on paid administrative leave. Authorities also are trying to obtain video footage from the bus, if it’s available, as well as other buses to try and re-enact the night’s events. RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship said this process could take several days, and any information uncovered will be forwarded to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.
“We’re still trying to figure out what happened,” Thorne said Tuesday. “If anyone saw her, we hope they’ll come forward. But we might never know why she was walking down the street.
“It might just be a tragic accident.”
According to Nickerson, he and his fellow passengers initially thought the bus had hit a sign or a rock or a deer. When they realized a woman had been run over, “we just sat down and talked about how we were feeling,” he said, adding that the accident scene “definitely wasn’t too pretty.”
For Nickerson, the event flipped a switch inside of him.
“I’ve seen a lot of accidents over the years, and I’ve had friends die,” he explained. “But being on that bus – seeing it happen, feeling it happen – it hit my heart in a way that made me want to do something.”
Nickerson took his call for change to the Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday; he was told Sheriff Joe DiSalvo would be in touch. He is meeting with City Hall officials on Thursday morning.
“My main thing is to get the city and the county and the community behind me in this … to get a petition to improve the lighting. I want to give back to this community that has done so much for me,” said Nickerson, who as a delivery driver for Taster’s Pizza has long thought the streets of Aspen could be safer. “People come here, and live here, to enjoy Aspen – not to have a freak, tragic accident happen.”
But the battle to better light the streets of Aspen might be more than a one-man crusade.
According to Brian Pettet, Pitkin County director of public works, enhancements such as added lighting in the Highway 82 right of way are within the Colorado Department of Transportation’s purview, since it’s a state highway. But, he said, local jurisdictions can – and do – offer input on the need for such improvements.
“From the standpoint of safety, CDOT and Pitkin County have cooperated multiple times on funding to make that happen,” said Pettet, offering the ongoing planning for a grade-separated Highway 82 pedestrian crossing near the Aspen Business Center as an example. The county also put money toward safety improvements at the Smith Way/Highway 82 intersection, he said.
The desire for more lighting along the highway has to be balanced with local desires for a rural aesthetic, he added.
“As soon as you start adding more lighting to a roadway, you give it a more urban feel,” Pettet said.
Nickerson said he appreciates this point of view, but after witnessing firsthand the death of Kocab, he felt he had to take action.
“Aspen is a very earth-friendly place, and I understand the concerns about lighting,” he said. “I’m not talking about big city lights … but something needs to be done. This didn’t have to happen.”
And while Thorne said Colorado State Patrol officers have not necessarily received complaints about the lighting situation on Highway 82, it is impossible to not be affected by the accident.
“We have received no special orders or alerts,” he said. “But in light of this accident, I think we will of course focus more on dark areas. Still, even with vigilance, walking in dark clothes on a dark stretch of road is dangerous.”
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Sick of not being able to find a parking place on Lone Pine Road because people are storing their cars and trailers? That’s about to change.