A week has passed since “Saul Lopez Square” had its public unveiling to an appreciative Pacoima community.
It is hoped the reconfigured pedestrian pathways, and added safety measures that included hiring additional crossing guards, can reduce the amount of potential and real traffic accidents at this busy intersection at Glenoaks Boulevard and Vaughn Street.
Unfortunately the changes came too late for Saul Lopez, for whom the “Square” was named.
The teenager wanted to be an engineer when he grew up. But Lopez’s life and dreams were tragically cut short on Nov. 15, 2016, when — while riding his bicycle to school — he was run over and pinned beneath a couple of trucks that had collided and slid into the intersection. Even though Lopez was eventually freed, he was eventually pronounced dead at the accident scene.
Not that Lopez’ passing had been forgotten by the residents here. A “ghost” bike, surrounded by flowers, is still on the corner a year and a half after that horrific accident.
But his family and friends hope that, with the changes and improvements made to “Saul Lopez Square,” other children and parents won’t have to go through the same kind of loss and heartache they’ve felt since Lopez was taken from them.
“It hurts that a death had to occur to make our community safer,” Ana Lucia Castillo, Lopez’ mother, said during the unveiling. “You did not get to be an engineer, but yet you became a protagonist of the thing you did not get to be.
“My son, with you to infinity and beyond. I know you are proud of what you accomplished,” Castillo said, fighting back tears.
A Tragic Accident
Lopez, 15, was riding his bicycle as he headed to Vaughn International Studies Academy (VISA) that November morning.
A Dodge pickup truck traveling south on Glenoaks Boulevard collided with a Chevrolet pickup truck headed east on Vaughn Street. The impact sent both trucks careening through the crosswalk, hitting Saul and pinning him to the ground. He eventually succumbed to his injuries.
His death deeply impacted his friends and the community at large. Parents from the different Vaughn schools quickly started collecting money and not only demanded additional safety measures at the intersection where the teen was killed, but also around the other nearby campuses.
Upon taking office on July 1, 2017, LA Councilmember Monica Rodriguez introduced a motion dedicating the intersection of Glenoaks Boulevard and Vaughn Street as “Saul Lopez Square,” her first piece of legislation in her new position.
Last Friday, Feb. 9, Rodriguez unveiled the “Saul Lopez Square” in the presence of Lopez’ parents, brothers and sister, friends from his school, and many other parents and community members.
Along with signs that were posted on the four corners of the intersection of Glenoaks Boulevard and Vaughn Street, improved safety traffic measures there include upgraded continental-style high visibility crosswalks, a left-turn signal, and right-arrow “Yield to Pedestrians” signage.
There are also Leading Pedestrian Intervals (LPI) in all directions (LPIs give pedestrians and bicyclists a 3-7 second head start when entering an intersection).
These new measures should enhance the visibility for pedestrians and cyclists in the intersection and reinforce their right-of-way before turning vehicles.
“This is a bittersweet day,” Rodriguez said during the event held “to commemorate Saul’s life and to create a safer environment for our kids and our community.”
She noted that Lopez’ death really “shook our community,” which had to pick itself up from this “deeply senseless tragedy.”
“For me, as a mother, it was important to avoid these types of tragedies in the future,” Rodriguez added.
Other safety measures have since been implemented. There are crossing guards at the corner where Lopez lost his life, and around the cluster of Vaughn schools just down the street, which include a primary center, an elementary, a middle school and the high school he attended.
Last year, stop signs were also placed around those campuses after parents from the schools lobbied heavily for them.
“We got angry,” said Anita Zepeda, executive director for Vaughn Next Century Learning, who blamed the lack of safety measures for his passing.
“This was something that should have never occurred,” she said, but added it was important that his “[loss of] life should not be in vain.”
She applauded the safety measures installed at the corner and called “for every person who gets behind the wheel to slow down and be careful around the school” when youngsters are crossing the street.
“Desperate to Give Him a Hug”
The last year and a half hasn’t been easy for Lopez’ parents.
His father, Leopoldo, suffers from anxiety attacks and depression.
“He (Lopez) didn’t like too much noise or celebration. He was very calm, very centered, like me, and all of this it’s overwhelming,” Leopoldo said, adding that he felt “good” about all that his son’s memory has meant for his neighborhood.
The pillar of the family has been Castillo, who has three other kids to look after — Emmanuel, 19; Melissa, 12 and Abraham, 5. Two of them attend Vaughn schools.
“When it happened, the people didn’t let you feel that pain, you feel anesthetized,” she said, remarking of the overwhelming community support after her son’s death. Hundreds of people, including dozens of his classmates and students from VISA attended Saul’s funeral at St. Ferdinand’s Catholic Church in San Fernando.
“When time passes you start to feel it,” Castillo said. “You feel desperate to give him a hug, but you can’t.”
“We were never the same afterward. My husband has bouts of depression, but you have to find courage because you learn to live with the difficulties.”
His friends and classmates from school also miss Lopez, especially Lupe Reyes, who had known him since middle school.
Reyes recalled that he, Lopez and two girls used to hang out every Tuesday and go to Subway, where Lopez always ordered the “chicken sub.”
He was also consistent with his dress style as well. Reyes said Lopez always wore a flannel shirt he loved, a multi-colored one with orange, pink and blue that ripped several times and that went against the school dress code, but he simply adored it.
Reyes described Lopez as someone who “lived everyday as if it was his last” and “never worried too much.”
Judith Velazquez, another school friend, remembered Lopez as being “unforgettable,” someone who “made you smile instantly” and a “brilliant, really smart” guy.
That smart, sensible, fun loving kid who wanted to be an engineer and perhaps put his name on major projects throughout the city, has now done it.
“He’d be all over this,” said Reyes, looking at the signs bearing his friend’s name on the light posts at the square named after him.