Mourning a Young Man
Some knelt to pray. Others tucked small goodbye notes into the open casket. Still others just looked in disbelief at the still body of the 22-year-old.
And after about 300 mourners filed by the remains of Dion Johnson, a promising local broadcast journalist who died Aug. 19, his mother swept back the sheer fabric over his face, kissed her son one last time and closed the casket.
Her cries pierced an otherwise silent sanctuary at Holy Family Catholic Church at the funeral Mass in Hillcrest Heights on Thursday.
"I am reminded this moment of another mother whose heart was pierced . . . who saw her son suffer," said the Rev. Charles Green, who celebrated the Mass. "She is with you, the mother of God.
"And God was with Dion. When Dion went out to that park that day, I believe he talked to God."
Johnson, a former Frederick Douglass High School star athlete who was paralyzed in a 1993 football game, went out to the Forestville park about 10 a.m. the day he died.
Taking his motorized wheelchair for a "drive," he followed a winding path under sheltering trees to a small playground. Days after his death, the pair of tracks left by his wheelchair were still visible in the wood chips near a swing set and slide.
Johnson, a quadriplegic, was stranded within sight of nearby homes when his wheelchair became mired in those wood chips. His mother, who lived with him in a house several blocks away, found him unconscious that evening.
"She screamed, 'He's not breathing! My son's not breathing!' " said one neighbor, who called 911 for Johnson's mother, Wanda Washington, and did not want to be identified.
Johnson's body temperature was 108 degrees Fahrenheit by the time he reached the hospital at Andrews Air Force Base, where he was pronounced dead of heatstroke. People with spinal-cord injuries are more susceptible to the effects of heat because their bodies lose the ability to regulate temperature.
Thursday's funeral was attended by current and former students and faculty of Frederick Douglass, officials and on-air reporters from WJLA-TV (Channel 7), and people from Bowie State University, which granted Johnson a full athletic scholarship despite his disability.
Johnson got a degree in communications and had been working at Channel 7 as a freelance reporter for about a year.
"Look at all of the people here, look at the people," Green said. "Do you think Dion's struggle had value--his life? Of course it did."
-- Mary Louise Schumacher
The Senior Dash
It was rather late on a Sunday night, at least 10 p.m. Two women in blue dresses, heads gray and graying, respectively, were poised curbside in their orthopedic sneakers.
Looking left, straining to see around the curve and over a short rise in the road, they saw a break in the whizzing traffic. Pulling their cardigans taut around them and clutching their handbags, they made a break for it and in a half-shuffle, half-run darted across six lanes of Queens Chapel Road in Mount Rainier.
When asked what they were up to and where they might be headed, the pair coolly replied, "Oh, nothing . . . nowhere," like cagey politicos.
Their destination: Checkers.
Their goal: burgers.
"This happens daily, every single day," said an exasperated Regina Goins, site manager of the Rainier Manor senior housing complex, on Queens Chapel Road in Mount Rainier. "I see them sneaking out there with their walkers and canes. It is not good."
Mount Rainier Mayor Fred Sissine said residents for several years have been petitioning the State Highway Administration to create a safe passage for the seniors on the spot by installing a traffic light. At present, there is a crosswalk and a flashing yellow light that is often off.
"That food store is like a magnet to the seniors," Sissine said of the restaurant, which opened about two years ago. "They are in this situation where they have to really zip across there."
Trying to renew years-old pleas to the highway administration, Sissine said he and other residents in Mount Rainier, Hyattsville and Avondale are looking for one crusader who can devote serious time to pressing for that traffic light, as well as at three other "danger zones" along the Sligo Creek Trail in Prince George's County.
"We really need one person," Sissine said. "We've had meetings with [the State Highway Administration], and things don't ever seem to go anywhere because no one has the time to devote to this."
After receiving letters from residents several years ago, the highway administration did a study of the Queens Chapel area. Engineers generally take from nine months to a year to determine whether a traffic light would indeed calm traffic or simply create other problems.
"We have to factor in a number of things," said Lora Rakowski, spokeswoman for the highway administration. "We look at traffic volume, the approach and whether there are nearby signals."
The line of sight approaching from the south of the area in question is not particularly good, which might contribute to screeching halts and potential bang-ups, she said.
Installing a new traffic light costs at least $75,000. That would be well worth it, Goins said. Near collisions happen daily, and one Rainier Manor resident, who has since moved in with her family and is too frail to talk with reporters, was struck by passing cars twice.
"Two times, can you believe that?" Goins said. "Her eyes were failing her . . . but some of these ladies are pretty spunky."
Traffic accidents in the area are pretty common as it is, Goins said. The bus stop in front of Rainier Manor has been plowed over twice and replaced by Rainier Manor for $20,000 a pop. And a car flipped into the center's parking lot a few years ago after sliding on slippery roads.
The lights residents are seeking along the Sligo Creek Trail--following the creek that empties into the Anacostia--also cross four to six lanes of quick-moving roadways. In the Montgomery County portion of the trail, there is a traffic light at every busy crossing, Sissine said. The crossings sought in Prince George's are at Riggs Road, East West Highway and Queens Chapel Road, not a mile from the Checkers eatery.
"Things don't happen sometimes until someone gets killed," Sissine said, noting that the Sligo Creek Trail is older in Montgomery County and, in fact, there were injuries and deaths at some of the crossings there before lights were installed. "We don't believe it should come to that."
-- Mary Louise Schumacher
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CAPTION: Rainier Manor Assistant Manager Barbara Blackshear, Manager Regina Goins and resident Thelma Cale discuss the need for a traffic light on Queens Chapel Road in Mount Rainier.
CAPTION: Dion Johnson was paralyzed playing high school football. The Bowie State graduate, who had just begun a career in broadcasting, died Aug. 19. His funeral was last week in Hillcrest Heights.