Longform

Rebel Out With a Cross

Eight simple white crosses, made of PVC pipe, rattle slightly in the wind along a stretch of road north of Flagstaff, just past milepost 440 on Highway 89. They mark the eight who died here, killed in the same spot in two separate accidents last year.

The first accident killed three Navajos; their pickup collided with a fuel tanker last March. Three weeks later, a family of three crashed head-on into a couple driving in the opposite lane.

Bill Velie saw the lights and heard the sirens from his house, also on Highway 89. As he'd done more than a hundred times before, Velie pieced together the white crosses and pounded them into the hard dirt beside the road.

Today, more than a year later, he drives the highway and points out the white crosses standing in a row.

"Looks like a damned cornfield," Velie says, shaking his head.
In the past year, Bill Velie has built and placed more than 150 crosses on the road from Flagstaff to Page to remember the dead and remind the living. Each cross signifies a traffic fatality. Each one, Velie hopes, keeps other drivers from adding to the numbers.

Velie has never been paid for the 300-plus hours he's spent on the project. He's never lost a relative in any of these crashes. He's not even particularly attached to the cross as a symbol, except that it gets people's attention.

"I didn't do it because of any religious reason," he explains. "I just did it because it works."

The Arizona Department of Transportation disagrees, and thinks that the crosses are an illegal distraction. But the agency hasn't stopped Velie. Yet.

For now, he continues driving, steadily if slowly, down Highway 89. The crosses he's planted flank him on both sides.

Bill Velie does not, repeat not, have any talent for home decoration. The cowboy-and-Indian antiques, the tasteful furniture and color-coordinated interior of his Flagstaff home are entirely his wife Polly's doing, he's quick to point out.

Velie's more comfortable with building homes than furnishing them. He built this place next to the highway himself, a kind of retreat he made from a high-pressure, high-paying job as a field supervisor for a large construction company. He had the whole nine yards, he recalls: "Big house, big boat in front of the house, nice car--and it was killing me. I worked in 12 states and lived in seven. I just got tired of that."

He now runs a business which provides information to construction firms. He also runs a 135-ton bulldozer in the early hours of the morning for a local pumice mine, mostly for the fun of it and the chance to use the dozer on home projects, like the berm he's building to block out noise from the road.

"It's going to look like a golf course when I'm done," he says.
Velie has spent most of his life outdoors, working construction, and everything about him suggests a weathered toughness, from the gravelly quality of his voice to the deep lines in his face.

Velie grew up in western New York, on the Seneca Indian reservation. He played hockey. "We'd start out best friends and, an hour later, we'd be beating the hell out of each other," he remembers.

Today, at 57, Velie is still a take-no-prisoners kind of guy; diehard conservative, plain-spoken, bluntly honest.

But, despite that toughness, something in Velie responds to the pain of others.

Last year, he began to notice the frequent sirens passing by his home, signaling yet another wreck. So he decided to do something about it.

He'd been down this road before. In 1991, while working construction on Highway 93 near Wickieup, he decided to mark the sites of the frequent auto crashes on that road.

Route 93 is "a meat grinder," Velie says. "It can take an ambulance an hour and a half to get you to a hospital. If you wreck up there, you're toast."

Velie put 146 crosses up on 93 during the next two years in hopes that they'd remind people to pay attention and slow down. He figured the crosses might help along Highway 89 as well.

Velie went to Don Howard, the chief of the Timberline-Fernwood Fire District, to get some of the numbers and locations of fatal accidents.

At first, Howard wasn't sure why Velie would want the information, but when Velie indicated he wanted to put up crosses, the chief's interest was piqued.

Timberline-Fernwood is a combination volunteer-professional fire district. Mainly, it is the same people who go out every time to deal with the accidents along 89 and their aftermath. At times, it can get pretty grim.

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Chris Farnsworth