Oshawa teen advised his mother, ‘I will hurry residence,’ however tragically, he by no means made it
On his way out the door, Josh Okoeguale told his mom: “I’m going to hurry home and make you pasta.”
Josh, 16, made his way on his bicycle in the late afternoon of May 19 from the southeast Oshawa home the family shared near the sprawling General Motors plant, found his way to Wentworth Street, passed through the intersection of Simcoe Street South, turned north onto Ritson Avenue. and headed east onto Conant Street to Monsignor John Pereyma Catholic Secondary School where he was a student.
Josh biked to the school to teach supper-hour basketball to Grade 1 students. It was the school’s requirement that students like Josh do 40 hours of volunteer work as criteria for obtaining a school diploma.
When the one-hour coaching session was over, Josh hopped on his bicycle, anxious to get home and make pasta for his mom. At about 7:22 p.m., Josh was cycling west on the north sidewalk on Wentworth and was about to go through the traffic-lights intersection at Simcoe Street South where he had passed several hours earlier.
Heading in the same direction and wanting to turn right onto Simcoe Street was a Genesis Carriers transport truck driver. Josh’s mother and his aunt Abi believe Josh thought the driver was motoring straight through the intersection like he was — but the vehicle began turning right.
There are two lanes heading into the intersection and in order to make the turn onto Simcoe, the driver had to pull slightly into the left lane before pulling the huge rig right. It’s believed the driver was headed just up the street to pick up a load of goods at the AGS Automotive Systems plant where bumpers are manufactured for General Motors.
In the middle of the intersection, the driver’s empty tractor trailer struck Josh, dragging him about 20 feet. He was pronounced dead at the scene, leaving his mother Tayo Balogun, father Joseph Okoeguale, sisters Jade and Jennifer, many family members, friends and the driver devastated.
A drone video obtained by the family shows the distraught driver, who had 20 years of tractor-trailer experience, ripping the shirt off his body like Superman, placing it on the top of Josh and lying down beside Josh to comfort him after the accident happened.
It just might be the worst tragedy to take place in Oshawa so far this year.
“The driver went crazy on the spot. There was a young boy, no more than 17, and his young sister who saw the boy on the ground and they quickly came to try and save Josh,” his aunt Abi said as Josh’s mom sat beside her during a sombre interview at a coffee shop in Ajax.
By 8 p.m. that night, Josh hadn’t arrived home and his mom was wondering where he was — while her son lay dead on the street. Then 9 o’clock came and still no Josh. He had no identification on him but there was a piece of paper in one of his pockets linking him to Pereyma.
“I was saying, ‘Where is he? Why is he not home?’ ” his mom said in the interview. “I called his phone and there was no answer. We got a lift to go down to Simcoe and Bloor where Josh and his friends would sometimes go but he wasn’t there. We went to the school and nobody was there.”
Sadly, while the police officers tried to find Josh’s next of kin, his lifeless body wrapped in blue lay about three feet north of the cross-walk at the intersection for an agonizing four hours before it was picked up by the authorities as roads were closed in the area. The tractor trailer remained parked, 200 feet from its intended target, a reminder of something gone awfully wrong.
Soon, a Durham Regional police officer appeared in front of Josh’s home. The policeman instructed Balogun she needed to have someone with her and sit down as he delivered the news. That person was Jade. She was told her son was in an accident and didn’t survive.
Tayo’s life had changed forever. Immediately, she attempted to commit suicide by slashing herself with a knife. The officer stopped her and said she would need to go to Lakeridge General Hospital on Simcoe St. North for treatment and evaluation.
“She thought it would be the only way to forget what happened and that was to stab herself. She tried to take her life,” Abi said as her sister sat quietly at the table, staring out the window.
Born in Canada and of Nigerian descent, Josh proudly wore the school’s burgundy-topped uniform, loved to cook, was passionate about playing the trumpet in Pereyma’s band and was hoping to become an engineer.
“He was a very smart, caring, loving and gentle soul,’’ said his obituary..
Each Wednesday night, he played on a school basketball team.
On June 16, which would have been his 17th birthday, the team played a game and when the players recorded their first 16 points, they left the court in tribute to their fallen teammate. The team has also been staging a lot of get-togethers as a tribute to him.
“They wanted to do that for Josh. There were about seven of the boys who were close with Josh. They were involved with Josh all his life,’’ Abi said.
“It’s been an emotional roller coaster for everyone. There were a lot of lives affected. Torva Buckley, a director at the Oshawa Funeral Home, knew Josh all his life. Her son Matthew was a good friend of Josh’s. Under circumstances where a member of a funeral home is close to a victim, they choose not to be involved in the funeral service but Torva wanted to be part of it.’’
It was Abi, who in her own grieving process, took over the organization of the funeral arrangements after making a personal visit to plead to the Centre of Forensic Sciences in downtown Toronto to hand over Josh’s body after a number of days had passed by.
“I told them we need closure. We need that body,’’ Abi told the Star.
When Abi was asked what the coroner’s office official said in response, her face was frozen in silence and grief.
The family had originally planned a family-only gathering in the chapel at Oshawa Funeral Home but response from the public was so great Abi had to make it wide open to anyone who wanted to come.
“I changed it at the last minute. The place was packed. There wasn’t enough room,’’ Abi said.
One unsettling scenario took place after the memorial had been set up. A basketball placed at the site disappeared. Fortunately, someone found the ball miles away on Simcoe St. North.
“A lady contacted Jade and asked her if we wanted the ball at the scene, grave or home,’’ Abi said. “My sister requested that it be brought home and that was how we knew she was a psychic. She said Josh loved Taco Bell, which was true.’’
This reporter sent a postal letter to the driver, wondering if he might consent to an interview but there was no response. I know the driver’s name but at the request of Josh’s family, he will remain anonymous.
Almost immediately following the funeral service May 26, a ghost bike was strapped to another bicycle and delivered during a solemn memorial ride from the Oshawa GO station east of Whitby to the memorial site where it was attached to a light standard. Those on the ride led by long-time safety advocate Joe Arruda included members of the Durham Region Cycling Coalition (DRCC). Some speeches were made, including an emotional one by Jade. As cars whizzed by, Arruda held up a sign saying ‘A cyclist was killed here last week’.
“Standing there watching the traffic go by, I could see it’s a pretty busy intersection,’’ Arruda said in an interview.
Police continue to investigate the accident. This reporter was inside the Petro-Canada station across from the accident immediately following the tragedy and observed one officer looking at footage on the station’s video system. So far, no charges have been laid and police haven’t made any statements since the first one was issued shortly following the mishap.
The municipality of Durham Region traffic services department is being asked to take preventative measures to rehabilitate the dangerous intersection and make it safer for pedestrians to navigate, although changes may not take place until this fall or later. In some instances, by-laws will be required to be drawn up.
Oshawa city councillor Brian Nicholson got the ball rolling by contacting Durham Region personnel shortly after the tragedy. Police are being asked to better patrol the high density district that is frequented by industrial and commercial vehicles, speedy drivers and many pedestrians. Sightlines need to be improved and some crosswalks are located back too far. One or more trees blocking a clear view will likely be chopped down.
Nicholson hinted that a No Right Turn on Red sign could be installed at one or more of the entrances to the intersection. Implementation of a red-light camera is a possibility.
“They are doing a lot to make changes and adjustments at the intersection,’’ Abi said.
“From what I understand, Josh was crossing on a green signal,’’ Arruda said. “They should put a safety zone in there. They should put a bike crossing there with lines painted for cyclists, something’s that in the Ministry of Transportation safety manual for cyclists. There are a lot of those crossings in Whitby and they’ve started deploying some in Oshawa.’’
Arruda doesn’t agree cyclists should walk their bikes across an intersection. He says two-wheelers are “vehicles’’ and they should be operated as such.
As for the age-old issue of cyclists dealing with regular motor vehicles, gravel trucks, commercial vehicles and tractor trailers, Arruda said, “there are super bad cyclists and super bad drivers. Anytime I see where people say cyclists are at fault, I get my back up on that.’’
For years, Arruda championed the annual Ride of Silence in Durham Region to honour those killed while riding bicycles. Arruda says it’s comforting to Josh’s family that whatever he and the coalition are doing is so much appreciated.
Ron Lalonde, executive director of the DRCC, said there have been 10 cycling related deaths in the Durham Region since 2011 and the total is far greater in the GTA.
“Although both levels of government – municipal and regional – have been working on advancing their cycle networks with new plans and proposed infrastructure improvements, the gaps in a safe cycling network still exists,’’ Lalonde said in an interview.
Lalonde said funding is one of the challenges facing possible rollouts of new plans. He has been told some work may take “10+ years.’’ He says the call for ‘’safe roads and connected infrastructure has never been greater with more and more cyclists opting to use our roadways.’’
Lalonde pointed out that in mid-June, the popular Steve Paikin-hosted TVO show The Agenda featured an in-depth panel discussion regarding road safety specific to cyclists and pedestrians.
“It is both fair and reasonable for everyone to go out on a bike and return home safely,’’ Lalonde said.
Geoffrey Bercarich of the Toronto ARC (Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists) organization has been painting ghost bikes as a volunteer for 15 years, something he would prefer not to do because it means the death of another cyclist. The bikes are placed only when someone has died cycling.
“These bikes are all over the GTA. I just finished putting one up in Hamilton,’’ Bercarich said. “I fund-raise myself to pay for materials. ARC has been around Toronto for over 20 years but the memorials are my charge and responsibility. As a group, we try to contact the family and follow their wishes to the letter.
“We asked the Durham police to escort us (to Josh’s memorial) but they refused, saying they can’t be liable for our protection. This seems odd because the last memorial I set up had a police helicopter do a 20 km. escort. Anyhow, the cops were on site for the memorial.
“The intersection where Josh was killed seemed only intended for car use,’’ Bercarich continued. “The intersections in that area seem to ignore everything except cars. If cyclists are to be protected, laws need to be upgraded to accommodate their protection on the road.
“It’s so easy for motorists to kill and harm cyclists without fear of the consequences. The legal system is a one-way street for car dominance.’’
Josh’s mother, meanwhile, is doing her best to manage during a very difficult period and she admitted she needs to have family members or friends around all the time to keep her company as she navigates a long period of depression and grief.
She doesn’t want to be alone. She is taking some time off work to deal with the loss of her son. Her end goal is to move out of Oshawa.
“We fear for her life and that’s why we take her out and always make sure someone is around her,’’ Abi said.
Thoughts of Josh making pasta for her hopefully helps her get through the lonely days and dark nights.
Danny Gallagher is a freelance writer based in Oshawa and the author of eight Montreal Expos baseball books.