2 teens injured by drag racers on Franny Lew

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After two 14-year-old pedestrians were struck during an apparent drag race on Francis Lewis Boulevard in Fresh Meadows last Thursday, elected officials called for new measures to halt the illegal street races on a notorious half-mile stretch called the Franny Lew Speedway.

“We need to stop this from happening,” state Assemblyman Mark Weprin (D-Hollis) said Friday at a news conference near the intersection of Francis Lewis Boulevard and Horace Harding Expressway, the site of the accident. “This is a dangerous area that needs to be addressed.”

The two teens, walking east along Horace Harding Expressway with other friends, were hit at about 9 p.m. as they crossed Francis Lewis Boulevard by a red Ford Taurus and a black Honda headed north, police said.

Both of the victims were taken to New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens in Flushing, police said. One of the teenagers, identified by elected officials as Christina Vroulis of Little Neck, was in stable condition on Tuesday, a hospital spokeswoman said.

The other teen, identified by a family member as Saverio Sportella of Floral Park, was transferred to New York Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan and was critical but stable Tuesday, a hospital spokeswoman said.

The two cars fled the scene, but later that night the Taurus, which had a smashed windshield, was discovered abandoned near 209th Street and Grand Central Parkway, police said. Police said they were still looking for a black Honda, which they said sustained front-end damage, and the drivers of both cars. A woman was questioned but no arrests have been made as of Tuesday, police said.

Christina’s family could not be reached for comment.

The day after the hit-and-run, Saverio’s 16-year-old sister Marcela said he had undergone surgery on his leg and “he was getting better.”

She described her brother as an honors student who volunteers at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, and said Saverio and Christina and two other friends were either going to or leaving from a movie theater in Fresh Meadows.

“He usually never goes there,” Marcela said. The other two teens, who were not struck, did not see the cars until they sped off.

“They just saw two cars going really fast,” Marcela said.

The half-mile stretch of Francis Lewis Boulevard between 73rd Avenue and Horace Harding Expressway runs along Cunningham Park with three lanes in each direction and has no stoplights or cross streets. It has been an infamous illegal street-racing strip for decades, people familiar with the area said.

“This has been a problem since we were children,” City Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis), who grew up in the neighborhood, told the news conference. Mark Weprin is his brother.

Residents said racers meet up nightly during weekends and holidays at the 7-Eleven just north of the intersection where the teens were hit.

“They’ve stopped me so they can line up the cars,” said Sherry Lopipero, 64, who lives near 56th Street and Francis Lewis Boulevard. Lopipero said 75 to 100 people typically show up to race or watch the matches, which occasionally feature race cars unloaded from flatbed trucks in a nearby parking lot. Cars often reach speeds of 120 mph, and if lookouts spot police, drivers and spectators flee wildly, law enforcement sources said.

In 1995, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown worked with undercover police officers to monitor races on Francis Lewis Boulevard and South Conduit Avenue and to arrest drivers and seize their cars or motorcycles.

But Tony DiLernia, 51, of Fresh Meadows said of the drag racing, which rattles his windows at night, “it seems to have gotten worse the last few years.”

At the news conference, elected officials credited police with patrolling the area, but said police needed the help of mechanical and electronic devices along Francis Lewis Boulevard.

Councilman Weprin called for the installation of a traffic light between 73rd Avenue and Horace Harding Expressway to break up the racing strip. He and other leaders also endorsed a bill drafted by state Assemblyman Michael Cohen (D-Forest Hills) authorizing the city to install cameras to catch speeders. The city already has cameras to catch drivers running red lights.

Cohen said a similar bill had been opposed in the past by those concerned about the “big brother” aspect of the camera, and that the current version had been revised to allay those fears.    

In light of the injuries and deaths from past drag races, City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) said “this is a bill that is needed to save lives.”

Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

Updated 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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