Thursday, January 16, 2003

Fatal accident shakes up restaurant patrons, owner



By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Customer Bob McDermott carefully crosses Blue Ash Road Wednesday in front of Rusty's Ristorante.
(Glenn Hartong photos)
| ZOOM |
DEER PARK - From the front window of Rusty's Ristorante here, the staff and patrons had a horrifying view Tuesday night of just how fleeting life can be. At 7 p.m., two men - old friends - sat in a booth near the door of the neighborhood restaurant in the 8000 block of Blue Ash Road, eating their dinner, laughing at each other's jokes, teasing the waitress, enjoying each other's company.

A half hour later, after paying their bills, leaving tips and saying good night to Marlene Smith, the owner of Rusty's, they stepped off the curb into Blue Ash Road to get to their cars in a narrow lot across the street. Both were struck by a southbound car.

William J. Staun, 85, of Sycamore Township, lay dead in the street, killed instantly. His friend, 88-year-old Joseph R. Kruse, was seriously injured; he was in critical condition Wednesday afternoon at University Hospital.

"It's so sad, so very sad," said Ms. Smith, her voice trembling slightly as she shuffled a stack of menus Wednesday, waiting for the lunch crowd to appear.

"There they were," she said, pointing to the booth where the two men ate. "So happy, full of fun. And then it was all gone."

[photo] Marlene Smith, the owner of Rusty's Ristorante
People of Mr. Staun's and Mr. Kruse's age are nothing unusual at Rusty's, the 18-year-old restaurant with Italian dÈcor and American fare. It fills up every afternoon and evening with "mostly old folks, mostly regulars," Ms. Smith said.

Although there is parking behind the restaurant, most customers pull into the single row of parking places directly across from Rusty's and cross the heavily traveled road that runs from Blue Ash's industrial parks south to Silverton, without a crosswalk or traffic light to guide them.

Tuesday night, the patrons and staff at Rusty's didn't know anything had happened outside until a man who lives in an apartment building across the street ran into the restaurant, yelling to Ms. Smith to call 911.

The Silverton-Deer Park Rescue Squad is less than a mile away; the ambulance crew was there within a few minutes.

"Once we knew what was going on, some of us ran out to see if we could help," said Mona Olden, the bartender at Rusty's. "It was a horrible sight."

Some of the servers grabbed tablecloths and went out to the street, throwing them over the two men, Ms. Olden said.

"We tried to do what we could, but it was too bad, just too bad," Ms. Olden said. "It was awful."

A 17-year-old male who was driving the car that struck the two men stopped immediately and ran to the men to try to help, Ms. Smith said. The Hamilton County Sheriff's Department is investigating the accident, and no charges have been filed.

Ms. Olden and Ms. Smith said that they did not know the two men well - they weren't even sure about their names - but they recognized them as semi-regular customers.

"They would come in once a week, or once every couple of weeks," Ms. Olden said. "Sometimes we wouldn't see them for months, then they would show up again."

The two were "always friendly, always joking around," Ms. Smith said. "We never really knew their names, but everybody here recognized them; everybody liked them. They were good customers."

Ms. Smith said she had the impression the men had been friends a long time.

She overheard the two men talking at their table Tuesday night; Mr. Staun, she said, told Mr. Kruse he could stay over at his house in Sycamore Township instead of driving all the way back home to North College Hill.

She remembered them stopping to talk to other customers as they made their way to the bar to pay their bills, "joking and laughing."

The restaurant shut down for the night immediately after the accident.

"You don't go on after something like that," Ms. Smith said.

Late morning Wednesday, Rusty's was back in business - a group of 1944 graduates of Purcell High School held their monthly lunch in the back room. Couples sat scattered about the two dining rooms, ordering up the country-fried steak and open-faced turkey specials.

Outside on Blue Ash Road, Bob McDermott of Deer Park shook his head and said he hoped that the tragedy will force municipal officials to do something about the traffic situation.

"This area is poorly lit anyway and you have all of these folks, mostly old folks, walking into the middle of the street," Mr. McDermott said.

Behind him, two older women parked across the street and walked across the busy road to the restaurant.

"I know you can't put a street light on every pole and a walk light on every corner, but how many people have to get killed before somebody does something about it?" he said.

E-mail hwilkinson@enquirer.com




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