2007-08-24 / Community

Fatality Caused By Distracted Driver,Cops Say

By Brian Magoolaghan

Retired firefighter Justin Noel Van Wert died August 12, after being struck by this Ford Escort on Cross Bay Boulevard in Broad Channel. Driver inattention was the cause of the accident, police said. Photo by OnScene Photography Retired firefighter Justin Noel Van Wert died August 12, after being struck by this Ford Escort on Cross Bay Boulevard in Broad Channel. Driver inattention was the cause of the accident, police said. Photo by OnScene Photography A distracted driver - not a trip and fall - was cited as the cause of a recent Broad Channel accident in which a retired firefighter was struck and killed on Cross Bay Boulevard, The Wave has learned.

Moments before Justin Noel Van Wert, 53, was killed, the driver of the vehicle that hit him, Nidia Merino, 24, diverted her attention from the road to a 2-year-old boy strapped into a child seat in the back of her 1995 Ford Escort coupe, according to a copy of the accident report obtained this week by The Wave.

VanWert left a party at the Iroquois Yacht Club at about 12:40 a.m. on August 12, and was crossing the boulevard - to where his car was parked - when he was hit in the left southbound lane near West 13 Street.

"He hit the windshield and went flying across the street," said Donna LeSuer, who, along with her 16-year-old nephew, attended the party with Van Wert. She and her nephew were standing on the west side of the road, out of harm's way, as Van Wert wrapped up a conversation with some friends and then started crossing the street. The impact sent Van Wert's cell phone and wallet flying and knocked the shoes off his feet, she said.

LeSuer told The Wave that she and Van Wert were to be married, and was reeling from his death when she spoke this week to a Wave reporter. She said her fiancé never tripped, as was initially reported in this newspaper.

"He didn't stumble and fall," said LeSuer, who was the designated driver that night. "He was at a party, and yes, he was drinking," but that was "neither here nor there" because "He was capable of walking across the street."

The police officer who completed the accident report indicated that Merino "turned [her] attention to [a] child in back seat prior to impact," and, in another section of the report, cited "driver inattention" as the only apparent contributing factor.

After the accident, Van Wert was brought to Peninsula Hospital Center, where he was pronounced dead about a half hour later.

Merino and the baby boy, Hector Serano, were taken to St. John's Episcopal Hospital for observation.

Merino was not charged with any wrongdoing. She could not be reached for comment.

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