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Dec 31, 2011 8:20 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Eyewitnesses Share Experiences Moments Before Wrong-Way Driver Dies In Head-On Crash On Sunrise Highway In Westhampton

Jan 3, 2012 5:36 PM

Westhampton resident Donna Hepworth was driving west on Sunrise Highway a few minutes before 7 p.m. on New Year’s Eve when she witnessed the unbelievable: a set of headlights coming straight at her, in the same westbound lanes.

“I thought I was going to die,” said Ms. Hepworth, who was heading to East Moriches at the time to drop off two friends after spending the day in Montauk shooting photos. “It was terrifying. You really do see your life flash before your eyes.”

Ms. Hepworth, who was driving in the right lane, said she managed to avoid a head-on collision near the Westhampton exit only because the driver of the other car—later identified by authorities as James Riley, 60, of East Hampton—switched lanes at the very last moment.

“He was in my lane, and then he switched to the left lane,” she said. “Thank God—or we would have all been dead.”

She said she immediately pulled over onto the shoulder and dialed 911. That’s when she noticed that cars in the eastbound lanes of Sunrise Highway were flashing their headlights to warn those traveling west on the four-lane highway that a vehicle was traveling in the wrong direction.

“I was going 65 miles per hour, and he flew by me so fast my car rocked,” Ms. Hepworth recalled on Monday. “There was not a soul in the [left] lane—thank God. I had to pull off and just breathe.”

A minute or two later, New York State Police said Mr. Riley slammed his 1996 Oldsmobile head-on into a 2000 Suzuki driven by Carlos Bunay, 39, of East Hampton. Mr. Riley died in the accident.

Mr. Bunay, who was pinned inside his overturned car and had to be extracted by volunteers with the Westhampton Beach Fire Department, suffered serious injuries and was airlifted by Suffolk County Police helicopter to Stony Brook University Medical Center, according to authorities. Two passengers in his car—Blanca Tenesaci, 38, and her 9-year-old daughter, Joselyn Tenesaci—also suffered non-life-threatening injuries and were transported to the same hospital, police said. Ms. Tenesaci also had to be airlifted, while her daughter was transported to Stony Brook by Westhampton War Memorial Ambulance.

Police said Mr. Riley entered Sunrise Highway at a point somewhere west of the accident scene and drove the wrong way in the westbound lanes for several miles before crashing into Mr. Bunay’s car just east of the Westhampton exit.

Steven Collins, an investigator with the New York State Police, said it is unclear whether or not alcohol or drugs were involved in the crash; an autopsy will be performed and the results of toxicology reports are not expected for at least a week, he said. According to New York State Trooper Charles Witczak, Mr. Riley was the only person in his vehicle.

The accident closed both westbound lanes of Sunrise Highway for more than four hours, according to authorities. The lanes were reopened around 11 p.m. Southampton Town Police and the Westhampton Beach and East Quogue fire departments responded to the scene.

“As bad as that scene was, everybody worked together well—they kept it together,” Westhampton Beach Fire Chief Al Tudisco said. “Kudos to everyone that was on the scene.”

Ms. Hepworth is one of several eyewitnesses to come forward to share their gripping accounts of what happened minutes before the accident. Nicole A. Renaud of Medford, who was driving home from a friend’s house in Southampton on New Year’s Eve, also vividly recalls seeing Mr. Riley’s car pass her moments before the fatal crash. “It must have been less than a minute before the accident,” she said.

At first, Ms. Renaud said she could not understand why the car in front of her, which had been traveling in the left lane, began to frantically brake. “Rubber must have burned—he created smoke, trying to get out of the left lane,” she said. She added that at first, because it was dark, it was difficult to tell that the headlights belonging to Mr. Riley’s car were on the wrong side of the highway.

The car in front of her was able to shift to the right lane, Ms. Renaud said, adding that at first she thought the cars ahead of her had been trying to avoid a deer. “I kept wondering what they were trying to avoid,” she said.

That’s when she saw the headlights.

“He must have been going at least 75 or 80 miles an hour,” Ms. Renaud said of Mr. Riley. “I moved to the shoulder, just in case.”

She immediately called 911 and was told that others had also alerted the police. Southampton Town Police said they received a number of calls about a driver traveling the wrong way on Sunrise Highway prior to the accident, but could not confirm how many.

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It looked bad
By joe hampton (3457), south hampton on Jan 1, 12 3:26 AM
What an upsetting story to wake up to in the New Year! Another driver driving in the wrong direction--we have read about too many of these stories lately. A man, woman and young child--probably a young family--now have their lives changed forever. So sad. I will pray for all of them.
By Mrs.Sea (268), Sag Harbor on Jan 1, 12 8:14 AM
It was one of the worst I had ever seen. I really pray for the occupants of the vehicle he hit which was upside down.
By LovinLife (61), East Quogue on Jan 1, 12 8:23 AM
to go in the wrong dircetion on 27, don't you have to pass two sets of 'wrong way' signs that are one either side of the ramp and that are red? was this when the fog hit the area?
By Vikki K (490), Southampton on Jan 1, 12 11:29 AM
I was faced with a driver doing the same thing in the same area of Westhampton 20 yrs ago, we were heading to our honeymoon cruise and forgot a piece of luggage so we headed back east, we had to pull on the grass to avoid this driver, who was heading westbound in the eastbound lane, there was a crash after we had passed. I wonder if there is a ramp that could be somehow corrected? I hope the family is ok... ;(
By blester (2), east hampton on Jan 1, 12 11:32 AM
I was driving right around the time of this accident. There definitely was some fog in the area could have been heavy in certain areas. Sounds like the wrong way driver got on Sunrise at Exit 64, Route 104. If that's the case, he either made a u-turn to get on the wrong ramp or was driving the wrong way on 104 before entering Sunrise. The North and South bound lanes there are separated by a divider so he couldn't have crossed over to get on the wrong ramp too easily.



By itsamazing (224), Southampton on Jan 1, 12 12:05 PM
What a shame I hope alcohol was not a factor in this one!!
By johnnyhampton (82), Southampton on Jan 1, 12 1:46 PM
why not install the strips that deflate tires on these ramps.
By xtiego (698), bridgehampton on Jan 1, 12 1:52 PM
Really bad idea. In addition to being fiscally wasteful to try and provide a solution for every possible scenario, it would prevent emergency services vehicles from traveling in both directions, something they need to do at times - as would the general population in the event of mass evacuation. We live in the 21st century and you have to take 21st century risks. Every now and then there will be an accident due to someone's inattentiveness or lack of judgment.
By Funbeer (273), Southampton on Jan 1, 12 5:15 PM
Brilliant.
By olddiesel (8), southampton on Jan 1, 12 2:34 PM
1 member liked this comment
Reading comments on the newsday website, one posted said that Riley almost hit her brother's car and was doing around 70mph
By itsamazing (224), Southampton on Jan 1, 12 4:39 PM
Xtiego- Great Idea. Nothing fiscally irresponsibly about saving a person or persons life. Unfortunately in the 21st Century we have greater population and more travel. I also passed that accident about an hour after it happened and had 2 children in the car with me. I pray the people hit have a speedy recovery and to the police, fire department and first responders great work.
By realistic (472), westhampton on Jan 1, 12 5:44 PM
2 members liked this comment
I feel the expense is not nearly what we have to pay for lives ended by this kind of accident. Husbands, wives, children, etc . vs the cost of the strips? I think not.
By xtiego (698), bridgehampton on Jan 1, 12 6:27 PM
1 member liked this comment
My thoughts also go out to the emergency service workers who responded to this accident...not a pleasant memory for this holiday season.
By metsfan2 (163), southampton on Jan 1, 12 6:51 PM
1 member liked this comment
This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By jaboga (11), Speonk on Jan 2, 12 12:16 AM
Lets do 21st centry add censers that will send a signal to authorities
By Rewoodworking (1), Eastport on Jan 2, 12 9:18 AM
Story says driver entered Sunrise west of the accident but that sounds impossible to be going the wrong way in the east bound lanes. I agree he had to enter at Route 104.
By EastEnd68 (888), Westhampton on Jan 2, 12 10:20 AM
That poor family. Didn't anybody traveling on either side of the Sunrise see a car going the wrong way? There are usually vehicles on that stretch at that hour. The driver went the wrong way "for several miles", so someone should have noticed it or its head or taillights if there was a heavy fog - if its lights were even on. Did no one call the police to report what they saw? A call might not have prevented the accident, but the information might help the police to figure out what happened.

Thanks ...more
By goldenrod (505), southampton on Jan 2, 12 10:43 AM
Friends of a friend passed the gentleman and did call the police. They just didn't get there in time. I don't know how many calls were made. It's just a shame it happened. thoughts and prayers to the familes.
By Valley Gal (2), Staunton on Jan 2, 12 1:38 PM
this happened to me heading south on the taconic state parkway in upstate new york, an elderly lady heading north in the southbound lane for passing had a smile on her face, it was sunny, and early ... like 9:30 on a sunday morning ...and there were scant seconds between our seeing her, our shocked faces watching her pass, this took twenty to thirty seconds and then they were passed us on our left...there wasn't much time to communicate the error to them..an older couple... looked like they didn't ...more
By Vikki K (490), Southampton on Jan 2, 12 12:32 PM
It has nothing to do with noone calling or no one noticing the lights. It all happens so fast and out of no where. The guy almost hit me that night and I just moved out of the way in time. It's a scary situation and my prayers go out to the family he hit.
By AR (1), East Quouge on Jan 2, 12 3:42 PM
The photographic images added recently say more than words. Thank you to all emergency responders for turning out for such an horrific event.

Well done to the staff of the Press for such detailed coverage during your "week off."

So sorry to the families and friends of the victims for your loss.

Hard to say "Happy New Year" right now -- but carry on we must.

Life is short.
By PBR (4956), Southampton on Jan 2, 12 4:51 PM
disregard my comment-driver had to enter sunrise by route 111
By EastEnd68 (888), Westhampton on Jan 2, 12 5:53 PM
no i' wrong
By EastEnd68 (888), Westhampton on Jan 2, 12 5:54 PM
Details TBD.
By PBR (4956), Southampton on Jan 2, 12 6:19 PM
I stand corrected too. I misread the article and thought that Riley was headed westbound. Re-reading now, I see he was headed east making entrance from 104 impossible. Entrace at Rt 111 is a possibility
By itsamazing (224), Southampton on Jan 2, 12 7:57 PM
This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By jaboga (11), Speonk on Jan 2, 12 9:23 PM
This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By The Good Life (7), Westhampton Beach on Jan 3, 12 1:21 PM
2 members liked this comment
At the rate of speed the offending car was traveling all the while the lights of cars coming at him how could he not realize something was terribly wrong. Seems like this guy had a death wish. Mission accomplished I guess. By the grace of God it did not include anyone else. Thank you to all the rescue people and their families who gave up their New Year's Eve plans to help others. Blessings to all of the victims and near victims.
By SLCSouth (9), Southampton on Jan 3, 12 5:24 PM
Yes the 3 members have survied, yippee!! but to what? are they paralyzed or tramatized for life. What a damn shame!
By LovinLife (61), East Quogue on Jan 3, 12 7:20 PM
This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By Bill in Riverhead (190), Riverhead on Jan 4, 12 10:04 AM
We were on our way home from dinner in Quogue and the accident had just happened. It was a horrendous site to see and I am so sad for the loss of life. Emergency vehicles were not even there yet. Let's hope the survivors will recover. My prayers are with them.
By peggydineen (2), southampton on Jan 4, 12 11:10 AM
Reports indicate that the driver entered the highway "somewhere west of the accident scene". It seems plausable that the driver (an East Hampton resident) was returning home and must have been comming south on CR 111 and turned left at the light at the intersection of the north service road and CR 111. This is the only place that an eastbound car could enter the westbound lanes of traffic without going the oppisite way around an entrance loop. I'm supprised it has not happened before.
By ExChief (3), Southampton on Jan 6, 12 12:11 PM