Flying into the Hedges & the Big Splash into Town Pond
Montauk Highway makes an abrupt 90-degree turn to the left off Woods Lane as it heads east to enter East Hampton Village. People in the know make that turn. People not in the know sometimes make it and, on rare occasion, try, but before completing the turn, plop their cars into Town Pond, which borders the road on the right.
It’s been something of an entertainment when that happens. The pond is only about 4 feet deep. As a result, a driver, looking out, realizes that if the car door is opened, the water will rush in and quickly cover the floormats, pedals and shoes, and so instead sits nervously waiting for help to arrive. How embarrassing. Particularly if it’s a convertible with the top down.
I think the Big Splash, as some of us call it, happens about every two years.
Beginning about 15 years ago, however, the powers that be in the New York State Transportation Department made heroic efforts to not have this happen. They expanded what had been a single eastbound lane into three lanes, installed noisy, bouncy rumble strips, added 11 signs, some of which said “Stop,” or “Turn Left” or just a black arrow on a yellow background pointing left, and mounted them on an assortment of metal guardrails and posts.
All this, however, was no match for what happened last Monday.
A car speeding down Woods Lane might have made the turn.
A car speeding down Woods Lane just before 1 in the morning might have made the turn.
A car speeding down Woods Lane at 1 in the morning with an 18-year-old driver at the wheel might have made the turn.
A car speeding down Woods Lane at 1 in the morning with an 18-year-old driver at the wheel and three 17-year-old friends in the back might have made the turn, although perhaps on two wheels.
But a car speeding down Woods Lane at 1 in the morning with an 18-year-old driver at the wheel of a black 2017 Infiniti, three 17-year-olds inside, a police car with lights flashing in hot pursuit for the prior half-mile and a decision made by the driver to turn off the headlights so he might lose the cop … That person, Nicholas Antonio Pitre of West Islip, not only didn’t make the turn, he didn’t even skid into the pond, which happens when you halfway make the turn.
The car went straight, went airborne flying over the western shoreline of the pond, bounced down onto James Lane, took off again to clear a picket fence guarding the front lawn of the grand old three-story Hedges Inn there. After shoving aside foundation stones, the car went clanking up the steps to the inn’s front porch, dragging pieces of the wooden planking from the porch floor behind, to then imbed itself in the shingled front wall of that place where, half in and half out, with rear wheels spinning free, it came to a halt.
Amazingly, nobody was seriously injured. But when the police arrived and saw the back end of the car sticking out, they decided that before doing anything other than helping the teenagers out through the side doors, they’d call the building inspector, Thomas Preiato, roust him out of bed and have him come over to make sure that this 300-year-old inn would not fall down if the fire department, which would soon arrive, tried to extricate the car without bracing the inn first.
Preiato arrived, made some measurements, then gave it a thumbs up. And so the extrication began.
Tickets got issued. Mr. Pitre, using a fake ID that claimed to be Pitre’s driver’s license, was charged with reckless driving, fleeing a police officer and criminal possession of a forged instrument. He was asked to walk a straight line, which he did. So no drunk-driving ticket was issued. Just those three others. He was arraigned in East Hampton Town Justice Court on February 7.
Of the many, many times cars and trucks failed to make this turn since the beginning of auto activity in the late 1800s, this is only one of maybe five times that a car went completely straight and not part way around and into the pond.
Even though these were rare occurrences, the inn owners, to protect the property, had installed a steel beam behind the shingles at the front of the old inn. This is not historically correct of course, but Jenny Lilja, the inn manager, said it could save lives. In this instance, however, Mr. Pitre did not hit the beam. He cleared it.
After everything, East Hampton Village Mayor Jerry Larsen told the East Hampton Star that he didn’t think a hard structure is the answer, saying, “That would be a death sentence for a driver.” He thinks instead, the solution at the inn might be some kind of giant traffic safety net sitting behind bushes on the front lawn of the inn, which, when activated, could deploy like a giant dashboard air bag to catch an errant car and bring it to a halt safely in front of the inn.
Historically, I believe the first time a motorist drove into the pond occurred on a dark foggy night in 1926, in the early days of Prohibition.
The car being driven was a 1922 Model T Touring car, a convertible with oversized wheels and a crank in the front you had to turn to start its little engine. It was not going very fast, a little more than 10 miles an hour when it approached the turn. Two men sat in it, both pleasantly inebriated — having attended an earlier “Joe Sent Me” party in Greenport — and were now going the 49 miles around the horn to their homes in East Hampton. There was a splash. The motor stopped. And now, in the dark, they could hear water swishing back and forth around their car. What happened?
“I think we have driven into Town Pond,” said one of them.
“So it seems,” said the other. “I’ll get out and get help. You stay here.”
The sun rose about 7 a.m. that morning to reveal some children, walking to school, who had stopped to see a car in the middle of the pond with a man sitting in it asleep.
Hours earlier, his friend had sloshed off, forgot why he did that, and so instead just walked wearily home and called it a night.
HELP PRESERVE DAN’S PAPERS 1960–2024
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