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***A SELECTED READER'S COMMENT ON THE BELOW ARTICLE - CONNECTICUT DRAG STRIP SHUTTING DOWN
" I remember the 1976 story very well. I was fifteen and a sophomore at West Haven High. A lot of my friends were there that night. In the 1950's "street racing" was becoming more and more frequent and fatalities were happening alot. That's why drag strips such as "Connecticut Dragway" were created. Unfortunetly rising costs and greed have closed a great many tracks across the country (including CT Dragway). Some of the very same people appalled at this story, shot down a proposed drag strip off Montowese ave. twenty years ago. Too many N.I.M.B.Y's out there and street racing will continue! "
History Repeats: In 1976 a drag racing crash on Long Wharf killed 4
By William Kaempffer, Register Staff
NEW HAVEN — Jaime Comacho remembers the horrific crash and fire, then the painful skin grafts he endured during his long recovery.
He remembers testifying in court against the man police said plowed into his car, which flipped and burst into flames.
Mostly, the Stamford resident recalls how he was spared while his twin brother, cousin, and two of his closest high school buddies burned to death.
It was Sept. 24, 1976, on Long Wharf Drive, an area notorious for illegal street racing that at times drew scores of spectators and people with souped-up cars looking to compete. Comacho, his brother and their friends were not among the racers; they were just in their path.
Thirty-two years later, on Aug. 17 this year, tragedy would strike again, when a driver ran off Long Wharf Drive, killing a spectator and injuring another, during illegal street races.
In 1976, Comacho, then 18, was home from college. He and his brother and buddies were traveling to a New Haven nightclub.
They never made it.
The evening ended with his brother and friends dead, and Comacho suffering burns over nearly 40 percent of his body. He endured several years of arduous skin grafts, difficult physical therapy and even psychological counseling.
“The worst part was trying to live with the fact that I was the only one who survived,” Comacho said.
The deadly crash shook Stamford and its now-closed Rippowam High School, where the five teens were popular student athletes. Killed in the crash were Juan Comacho and Raphael Jiminez, both 18, and Michael Blue and Nicholas Porcheddu, both 17.
The Camachos, Jiminez and Porcheddu all were wrestlers on the high school team, and Jaime won a state title in the 1970s. His twin was nearly as good. Blue was a state champion in the high hurdles in track, recalled Jaime Comacho. They were all best friends who had returned from college, and Blue from the Marine Corps.
As they pulled down the ramp at Exit 46 on Interstate 95, they had no idea death was waiting. Two teenagers from West Haven and Milford peeled away from a starting line painted across the roadway, and raced north toward the exit ramp.
Neither Comacho nor Tony Porcheddu, Nicholas’ older brother, had heard about this month’s crash, but were dismayed that the racing continued.
“I don’t know what it would take. The city needs to have a massive lawsuit?” said Comacho. “After our accident, I would think that something would be done. Maybe something was done temporarily. Kids just utilize that long strip as that drag strip. There’s no way it should be happening still. Why should someone else have to die and have to go through this?”
Police are investigating the Aug. 17 crash that killed Misael Ruiz, 23, who had gone to Long Wharf to watch the races. Police say they broke up the races there twice that night, but crowds and cars returned.
There are conflicting accounts whether the driver who killed Ruiz was involved in racing or showing off during lulls in action. Whatever the case, the driver was speeding back toward the starting line when he veered into the crowd, striking a 17-year-old, and killing Ruiz, police said.
The driver fled in his car. Police later recovered it after the owner tried to report it stolen. Investigators have questioned the man, identified as Marco Palma of New Haven, who they believe was behind the wheel.
In the aftermath of the latest fatality, the city is looking at structural changes to the roadway that could prevent, or at least deter, racing.
Though 32 years have passed, Comacho said the memories of the crash are vivid.
“I remember the car, when I got hit from behind, the car just starting to flip and I remember reaching and my hand going into the fire. At that moment I just said, ‘God help me’ and when I said that, my feet found a window,” Comacho said. Passers-by pulled him out by the legs.
“By the time I got out, the car was just about totally engulfed in flames and I was the only one to get pulled out.”
Police would later charge Gary Ellsworth, then 20, with four counts of first-degree manslaughter and one count of first-degree assault. He would be acquitted in court. No telephone listing could be located for Ellsworth.
Prominent New Haven attorney Hugh F. Keefe, then a young lawyer, defended him in a case that drew intense media coverage. He still vividly recalls some of the testimony, particularly Comacho’s recounting hearing his friends’ anguished screams as they burned, and how there was nothing he could do to help them.
“It broke my heart. It broke everyone’s heart in the courtroom. It was so bad, so tragic,” Keefe said.
Ellsworth wasn’t part of the race, but police claimed he happened upon it and joined in, which Ellsworth denied.
In 1976, Keefe question whether the Police Department bore some responsibility, since it was well-known that racing was happening there and it was permitted to continue.
John J. Kelly, prosecutor in the case and now a defense attorney in New Haven, recalled that argument appeared to have been a factor in the acquittal.
“The argument to the jury at the time, which may have persuaded them, was that the city could have installed, for lack of a better term, speed bumps, knowing that this was a notorious location for drag racing,” he said this week. “Basically, drag racing had occurred there previously and the argument was the city knew or should have known about it and should have taken preventative measures.”
Keefe called the Aug. 17 crash “perfectly, totally preventable.”
“When I saw that headline a couple of weekends ago, I was stunned,” said Keefe. “Where are the speed bumps?”
That might be an argument Keefe makes in court should Palma be arrested. Keefe now represents him, too.
Tony Porcheddu said anger that he felt following the crash has long faded and he’s forgiven the now-grown men involved in the racing, understanding young people want to have fun and sometimes make bad decisions.
City officials have said they are keenly aware of the problems and aren’t ignoring it. The night of the August accident, there was a four-officer overtime beat. The officers were called to another racing hot spot a few minutes before the crash.
Michael Piscitelli, director of the city’s Transportation, Traffic and Parking department, said the city is looking at three or four different options in the short term to help alleviate the street racing problem on Long Wharf and should unveil them in September.
He declined to reveal details, and instead pointed to other traffic calming efforts the city and state undertook to solve traffic problems: The rotaries on Woodward Avenue to slow traffic, concrete barriers on River Street to curtail racing and plastic sticks and traffic light re-configuration after a series of accidents on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard.
“There may be other techniques that may be more appropriate for Long Wharf,” he said.
One thing it probably won’t be, he said, is speed bumps or rumble strips, saying there was concern about employing those because of heavy traffic volume, poor lighting and because the strip is an access route to the port.
In the long term, the city hopes the state Department of Transportation’s planned improvements and widening of Interstate 95 will solve the problem in that stretch. The administration, he said, has lobbied for an alternative of the plans that would create a ring road around Sargent Drive and transform into park land the section of Long Wharf Drive where the racing happens.
The next public hearing for that project is Sept. 11.
Though Tony Porcheddu was the older brother, he said he looked up to his younger sibling and hopes his brother’s qualities in life have made him a better person in his.
He was the last one in his family to see Nicholas alive.
The younger sibling had come home from college and the two brothers were alone in the house. In a rare public display, Nicholas hugged Tony and picked him up off the ground. The two talked for a while before they went their separate ways that evening.
“That helped me to deal with it. It made me feel like he and I were OK, that we were buddies, that he loved me, because I certainly loved him,” said Porcheddu.
Comacho, now 50, would go on to get his MBA from the University of Connecticut and work in Manhattan in finance before opening his own Signarama franchise, selling signs, in Norwalk.
He now has twin sons of his own and they followed in his and his brother’s wrestling footsteps. Entering their senior year at Stamford High, they are co-captains of the wrestling team, their father said.
He finds comfort in watching his twins interact, reminding him of when he and Juan were that age.
When his oldest son got his driver’s license, he pulled him aside.
“I reminded my son, ‘You can get caught up in the moment and do something stupid and regret it for the rest of your life. You have to live with the decisions you make. Make sure they’re wise.’”