DURHAM — Decades of crashes have scraped chunks of bark off old oaks on a narrow curve of N.C. 751 near the Duke campus. One scarred tree tells the stories of two young men who died here, 14 years apart.
Ivy leaves curl around a plaque nailed high on the trunk to honor Eric D. Pinsky, "Forever In Our Hearts, Remembered With Love." Pinsky, a 24-year-old Duke law student, was at the wheel when his Mazda RX-7 skidded sideways into this tree on Jan. 8, 1997.
Below Pinsky's weathered marker is a fresh white cross with photos of Matthew H. Grape, 21, a Duke senior who died Sept. 15. Grape was in the passenger seat of a Chevy Equinox that bounced off the same tree, then struck three more trees as it plunged down a bank and turned upside-down.
Why did these two men die on this spot? And why was this curve the site of a similar crash in 1992 that took three more lives?
Durham police crash reports blame all five deaths on impaired drivers who were speeding late at night - 85 mph in the 1992 crash, 80 mph in 1997, and 65 mph last month. Grape's driver, Duke student Lee K. Royster, is charged with driving while impaired, though police are still awaiting drug and alcohol test results.
All three cars were headed south on a straight, wide stretch of N.C. 751 (Cameron Boulevard) where the speed limit is 35 mph.
N.C. 751 changes dramatically after a stop light at Duke University Road. It narrows from four to two lanes as it changes its name to Academy Road, and it makes a tight curve to the right.
All three cars went straight instead, running off the left side of the curve lined with those scarred oak trees.
"When you're in that curve and you lose control, the first thing you're confronted with is two- and three-foot-diameter trees which are absolutely unforgiving," said Durham Police Cpl. Stan McHenry, who investigated the triple-fatality crash on April 6, 1992.
The driver was Dmitri Boudeka, 23, a Russian immigrant who lived in Carrboro. Two Russian business executives who died with him had just left a party celebrating their graduation from a three-week program at Duke's business school. Boudeka's Toyota ran off the curve and hit a tree that ripped its roof off.
There's nothing here today to memorialize the three Russian men. Eric Pinsky's photograph has faded, but Duke students who loved Grape are keeping his memory fresh with a vase of fragrant, colorful flowers at the base of the tree. The tree is stapled with copies of a newspaper story and the program from a memorial service at Grape's home-town church in Wellesley, Mass.
"We're still reeling from this tragedy," said Larry Moneta, Duke's vice president for student affairs. When he thinks of these crashes together, he focuses less on the location than on the common denominator of alcohol.
"I've seen estimates that somewhere in the vicinity of 1,700 college students are killed each year under some kind of alcohol-related circumstances," Moneta said. "This just makes me redouble my commitment to find some way to intervene and to mitigate these most dangerous circumstances."
Tony Wyatt, a regional traffic safety engineer for the state Department of Transportation, said investigators will examine that stretch of N.C. 751 for anything that could have contributed to the crashes. Sometimes there are warning signs or other measures that can be added to make drivers more likely to notice an approaching curve, he said.
McHenry said he didn't know what sort of warning would make a difference for a university student who should be familiar with this road near campus, and its curves.
"He's been up and down that road more than I have," said McHenry, a 30-year veteran who will retire from the Durham Police Department today.
"What warning would you give him? Don't drive drunk and don't speed? We're all supposed to know that. Especially, don't do them in combination."