Wednesday, July 05, 2000

Funeral escorts come close to own deaths

Careless drivers don't stop for processions

The Associated Press

        DAYTON, Ohio — A firefighter who also escorts funeral processions as a sideline said unthinking drivers can make his part-time job as dangerous as his full-time work.

        “My friends think I'm crazy, but someone has to do it,” said Mike Bell.

        “Sometimes, people just aren't aware of what we are doing. They can only see that green light ahead of them,” he said. “All we are asking for is just a minute or two of time and to have some respect for the dead and the family.”

        “It can definitely be scary,” agreed Edward Sprowl, 77, former owner of the Dayton Funeral Escort Service. The job involves riding a motorcycle into a busy intersection and facing a stream of cars with nothing except a whistle and an outstretched hand to stop them.

        Before retiring, Mr. Sprowl led funeral processions from the memorial service to the cemetery for 25 years.

        In 1974, he bought the company from its previous owners. Last year, he passed the business on to his daughter, Diana. His company employs seven escorts who work 40 to 50 funerals each week.

        Funeral escorts have the legal right to lead processions through intersections, and this often can lead to danger. In 1998 in Memphis, Tenn., a motorcyclist escorting a funeral procession was killed when a car broke into the line of vehicles he was directing and ran over him.

        “The times that people don't stop, I feel like they just don't register what's happening,” said escort Montana Masters.

        Mr. Sprowl was involved in three collisions during his years as an escort.

        “The first time, a car came through the intersection and just missed the coach and broke my leg. The second time, I was sitting in the intersection ..., and someone came off the highway and broke my other leg,” he said.

        His daughter said the last crash led to her father's retirement.

        “He was 74 years old when it happened, and it totaled the Harley,” she said. “My mother and I decided it was time for him to retire then.”

        “We really have to make people aware of us,” Mr. Bell said. “I wear a bright orange vest and really blow on that whistle.”

        “I try and make good eye contact with people,” said Duane Koverman, the company's newest driver.

        Despite the danger, the escorts say they enjoy their job.

        “I've been so moved by some of the services,” Ms. Masters said. “I've been amazed to be touched by someone after they are gone.”

        Ms. Masters, the company's only female escort, rode until she was six months' pregnant last year.

        “You also get to see different religions, cultures and different parts of the city,” Mr. Koverman said.

        “Where else do you get to ride and get paid for it?” Mr. Bell added.


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