It is a road that has motivated high-speed, high-flying drags, where cars go airborne at 80, 90 or 100 m.p.h., sometimes at night, and sometimes with the headlights turned off.
"As soon as you get your license, you have to do it," said one Pitman High School student, a 16-year-old sophomore who claims he cruised the hills as a passenger last summer at more than 100 m.p.h. "It's dangerous, but it's fun. It's the thing to do."
In Mantua, Gloucester County, it's called Breakneck Road.
On Nov. 11, during the late-night hours, Robert Sederland, a 17-year-old Pitman High School student, made several high-speed passes down Breakneck Road in a Ford Mustang crammed with four other students.
At the road's most dangerous section, he lost control and the car went airborne. It swerved, authorities say, flipped over, hit a tree, and split in half.
All five occupants were hurled from the car. One girl was found by police pinned beneath a large section of the vehicle; Sederland was found farther up the street after the car's front section careened more than 40 feet past the back end. The automobile's two sections were literally "wrapped around trees," an eyewitness said. Alcohol was not involved, police say.
Although everyone survived the crash, the road to recovery may last a lifetime for some. Both Sederland, who suffered head injuries, and Emily Musto, who is permanently paralyzed below the waist, have been taken to the A.I. DuPont Institute near Wilmington for rehabilitation.
"She is going to learn how to take care of herself and adjust to being in a wheelchair," Richard Musto, Emily's father, said last week. "The prognosis is that she will be crippled for the rest of her life."
Michael Killeen, a sophomore sent to Cooper Hospital-University Medical Center after the accident, is due to be released any day. He is without a kidney and a spleen, and has shoulder problems. Sara Dougherty, a junior, was
sent home about 10 days after the accident to recover from facial injuries, broken ribs, a broken shoulder, bruised lungs, and a bruised heart.
The fifth passenger, junior Tara Brown, was treated and released the night of the accident. She suffered a broken collarbone, a concussion and lacerations. She has returned to school. Those who know her say she refuses to speak about the accident.
Days after the wreck, the students of Pitman High placed light blue ribbons on their jackets and car antennas, and signed get-well cards for Sederland and his four passengers. On the same day, Pitman High School Principal Donald DeMore spoke to students via in-class television about the accident. And at a school so small, where students know most every fellow student, guidance counselors were available to help them come to terms with their emotions.
More than at any other time in recent memory, students say, the accident also appears to have fostered discussion about what happens on Breakneck Road when the conditions are right.
At Pitman High, not far from the east end of Breakneck Road, students say the road serves as a rite of passage for newly licensed drivers. At Clearview Regional High School, at the west end of Breakneck, students who pull out onto the road every day after school say it's just a cool spot for hair-raising, roller-coaster rides.
"They go down there to feel the butterflies," said Pitman senior Bill Ruby, 18, eating pizza and fries outside during lunch.
One 17-year-old Clearview senior spoke of taking the hills at 100 m.p.h. in a sports car. Another talked of driving it at 90 m.p.h. in a 1970 Ford LTD with the top down. "If I would have flipped, that would have been it," the student said.
Huddled around a Ford Mustang in the Clearview parking lot, a group of students, mostly boys, spoke last week right after school about the good old days on Breakneck Road. Even a 14-year-old freshman, with peach fuzz and braces, recalled his recent 100-m.p.h. run down the drive. The boy was sitting in the front passenger seat while another 14-year-old drove.
For some, however, it appears as if the glory days are over. Sederland's accident raised eyebrows and heightened fears, and although some students continue to peel out of parking spaces and away from traffic lights, others appear more aware of Breakneck and its dangers.
Michael Romeo, 17, driving a loud, tough Camaro out of the Pitman High School parking lot last week, said he did not want to wind up like the victims of the Nov. 11 crash. And Debbie Postorivo, 17, who spoke hours after getting her license and minutes before pulling out of the Clearview parking lot in a new Mustang, said the accident scared her half to death.
"I'm never going on that road again," said another Pitman student, the one who took a Breakneck joy ride earlier this year at 100 m.p.h. "Reality finally hit me in the face. It's stupid."
Clearview senior Kevin Kraft, 18, who said he had driven his 1970 Ford Mustang down Breakneck at 90 m.p.h., and who said he knew students who had whisked past school buses traveling the road, added: "The accident was definitely a slap in the face. It caused me to think."
Pitman Principal DeMore's brother received a speeding ticket on Breakneck Road more than 40 years ago. Jack Wurst, 49, owner of an auto body shop in Mantua, said it was "common practice to hit those bumps" when he was a Clearview student in the early '60s. Mantua Police Officer Edward Mills said the same was true in the early '70s.
All three men grew up within miles of Breakneck, and they remember what it was like driving up and down the road. "It was more or less for the guys with fast cars," Mills says today. "There were always a lot of accidents. I knew it was dangerous, and I was not looking to ruin my only car."
"Breakneck Road was always a road kids would challenge," Pitman Mayor Bruce Ware, a 1962 local graduate, said last week. "And, unfortunately, the road would win once in a while."
Ten years ago, the road beat Dawn Mazzola, a passenger, and several others driving to a friend's house after leaving the movies. Mazzola was left with serious facial injuries, inhibitions and five years of recovery.
On the rain-slicked road at high speed, just past one of the infamous
hills, the car hydroplaned and spun out of control into the woods. Mazzola's face was crushed, and she had to undergo reconstructive surgery on her cheek. The driver suffered minor injuries, another passenger broke her pelvis, and the fourth passenger injured a leg.
"The road was always known for its joy rides," Mazzola said last week, adding that the Sederland accident brought back nightmares. "It was a fun road to ride down fast. We had on music, and I guess we got caught up in the moment."
According to Mantua Patrolman Charles Copeland Jr., the department's highway safety officer, two motorists were injured many years ago on Breakneck when they collided from opposite sides of the street. And within the last few years, a station wagon swerved from the roadway, injuring several passengers.
Remarkably, the department has not recorded one accident related to excessive speed on Breakneck in the last three years. And there have been no reported fatalities on the dangerous, hilly stretch.
Still, the locals fear for today's youth. Mantua Patrolman Dennis Carey, who investigated the Sederland crash, said last week that the case was tough ''because you're dealing with kids who have not grown up yet." And Mantua Mayor Robert Hudgins said, "It's terrible, and if you live around here you know the problem."
Candace Bryant, who as a resident of Breakneck knows the problem all too well, went so far as to wake her 15-year-old son, Jeffrey, the night of the accident so he could see for himself how speed could kill. She said last week
from her back porch, overlooking Breakneck, that she wanted him to "see what joyriding is all about."
And since the accident, Pitman High sophomore Michelle DiLisi has drafted a letter for her principal, superintendent and state assemblyman. "I think something should be done about the road," she said last week.
She suggested in her letter that a committee be formed, comprising students
from both Pitman and Clearview, to discuss higher fines and better warning signs. She also wants to educate her community.
"People don't think of the danger," DiLisi said. "You never think it can happen to you."