News

A ONE-MAN TRAFFIC WAR

As a boy, Tim Hilliard watched the Palo Verde nuclear power plant rise from the desert west of Phoenix, claiming the flatland where he once rode horses.

Like many of his neighbors in the sparsely settled countryside, Hilliard was never fully comfortable in its looming shadow.

Now, Hilliard blames the plant for more than just elbowing in on his boyhood freedom. On February 19, a Bechtel Corporation employee late for his shift at the nuclear power plant was barreling south down Wintersburg Road and did not stop for the flashing red lights of a school bus, according to a police report of the incident.

The driver, 32-year-old Azzam Chahal, passed the bus, which had stopped on the west side of the road, from behind, traveling about 50 miles an hour, according to the report. (Chahal, who has pleaded innocent to a charge of negligent homicide, declined comment.)

Tiffany Forbes, an 11-year-old, blond-haired, brown-eyed fifth grader tall for her age, was struck and killed as she crossed the road to the bus.

It was 6:58 when she was hit," Hilliard says. He was supposed to be at work at 7. He probably would have made it at the rate he was driving."

The driver's case awaits resolution, but Hilliard is bent on holding more than one man accountable for what happened.

Although Tiffany was not his daughter, Hilliard viewed her as such. Her mother and I lived together for about six and a half years and she called me `Daddy' the whole time, even after we had separated," he says.

In Tiffany's memory, Hilliard has planted a white cross at the roadside near where she was killed and launched what he characterizes as a one-man war to bring law back to Wintersburg Road.

The two-lane blacktop serves as the main conduit from Interstate 10 south to the nuclear plant. Thousands of plant workers-many car-pooling in leased vans provided to workers by Arizona Public Service Company-use the narrow road each day.

But school buses also trundle the roadway loading and unloading children, and often the school-bus routes overlap with the plant's three shift changes. Since the accident, Hilliard has been paying closer attention to the plant traffic, and what he's seen makes him angrier and angrier.

One morning, the 28-year-old electrician hid shivering behind a bush at the top of the exit ramp onto Wintersburg Road from I-10 and videotaped hundreds of cars streaming in for the 7 a.m. shift.

On Hilliard's tape, many of the vehicles-including some of the APS-supplied vans-blow right through the stop sign at the intersection and head down the road. That, Hilliard maintains, is evidence of the lax regard workers have for traffic laws.

Once on Wintersburg Road, Hilliard says, there is seldom any counterweight for the temptation drivers feel to speed down the open road.

Ever since the beginning of the plant, for about 15 years now, they've basically run wild," he says. To me, all this blatant disregard for the law, with absolutely nobody out here to enforce the law...is why [drivers] felt it was okay to pass the school bus."

Hilliard took the videotape to Captain Ric Athey, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office commander responsible for the area. For five weeks after Tiffany's death, Hilliard says, he could not get Athey to send deputies out to patrol the roads. The tape, he says, seems to have spurred some action from the sheriff's department.

Athey maintains that Hilliard, in understandable grief, is overstating the problem. This is not a critical area," says Athey. We don't have that many accidents."

Nevertheless, Athey says, he has stepped up patrols in the area since the accident, and deputies have handed out more than 30 tickets, mostly for speeding. Athey said he was not sure how many drivers had been ticketed in the area before the accident.

Athey says he has also begun putting officers on school buses twice a week to watch for drivers passing them illegally, although none have been caught.

The traffic is being tamed, Athey says, though he's not sure plant workers are more prone to break the law than any other drivers. The employees that are stopped are well-aware of the death of the girl and there's a lot of remorse there," he says.

Plant employees, in fact, have contributed most of the $17,000 collected so far in a trust fund for Tiffany's mother, says plant spokesman Don Andrews. We feel very sorry for Tim Hilliard and the people who were close to Tiffany, and I think we have demonstrated that," Andrews says.

Hilliard says he is not swayed by the official responses. He believes Tiffany would still be alive if law enforcement had been vigorous in the past, and vows to keep a watchful eye on the sheriff's department in the future.

I'm not a madman after a bunch of traffic," he says. They've gotta be here. There have to be people running up and down the road to have the plant there. I don't really consider that fair, but that's my opinion. They're here. If they do the speed limit, if they drive like human beings, I can accept them.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
David Pasztor