With plans to widen Highway 3, province promises to preserve memorial for crash victims

The orange construction fence that surrounds two trees planted about 50 metres off Highway 3, in southwestern Ontario, near Cameron Side Road in Kingsville, makes them more noticeable.

Otherwise, the average driver might miss the pair of oaks with branches reaching out to touch each other.

That's unless you remember.

With plans to widen Highway 3, the province has promised the trees will be preserved based on what they represent — a horrible vehicle collision that occurred on the highway on Oct. 15, 1990. But also 34 years of friendship and efforts to give back to the community.

Oct. 15, 1990

On that fall day, Steve Cowell went to meet his friends Shane O'Brien and Peter Taves for lunch at their regular spot on the University of Windsor campus.

Cowell lived on campus but his friends would drive in from Kingsville for classes.

They never showed up for lunch and instead Cowell got a call from another friend who told him the two had died in a crash on Highway 3.

"I couldn't believe it so I tried calling their parents, nobody answered," said Cowell.

He would later find out the two 20 year olds were driving when a school bus pulled out onto the highway from the 9th Concession. To avoid the bus, they tried to go around but were hit head on by a transport truck.

The two trees are surrounded by orange fencing as the province has instructed contractors who are widening the highway to leave them alone.
The two trees are surrounded by orange fencing as the province has instructed contractors who are widening the highway to leave them alone. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

"It was horrific," said Elaine Incitti, Peter Taves' older sister.

"I am tearing up now just talking about it."

She said she remembers the police showing up at her door and thinking the worst.

"They were really, really sweet young men."

The collision didn't just rock her family but the entire community. Friends and family were eager to find ways to commemorate their lives and the planning started as early as their joint funerals.

"We didn't want to leave trying to figure out something we could do and I think at that time somebody suggested we plant some trees at the site," said Cowell.

"We just wanted to do something because we were so kind of lost."

Trees grow with new memories

Cowell said getting the province to sign off on the planting wasn't a quick process but the government at the time eventually agreed. In April of the following year the trees were planted and a plaque was erected at the site.

Incitti said at first it was hard to drive down Highway 3 and see the two freshly planted trees, but as the years went by it got easier and became a part of the grieving process.

"As you drive by, it just warms your heart because you have these great memories of both boys," said Incitti, who's still a Kingsville resident.

The province told CBC News in a statement "the ministry [of transportation] recognizes the significance and meaning behind the planting of the trees and what they represent — and have instructed the contractor to protect the trees and memorial plaque during construction."

Shane O’Brien and Peter Taves were killed October 15, 1994 on Highway 3 at Cameron Side Road in Kingsville.
Shane O’Brien and Peter Taves were killed Oct. 15, 1990, on Highway 3 at Cameron Side Road in Kingsville. (Submitted by Steve Cowell)

A spokesperson went on to say a guardrail will be installed along the shoulder of the highway in this location.

"How awesome that a government ... can recognize something that is so important to the community and to the people that loved them. So often you hear of corporations or municipalities or government that they are doing their own thing and don't care about the people, this shows they care," said Incitti.

Cowell said he's cautiously optimistic about the government's promise and will be relieved when the widening is over and the trees are still standing. However, he's pleased the highway is being widened.

Parents of the deceased men pushed for increased safety measures on the highway in the months and years that followed their deaths.

Peter Taves's father would spend hours out on the highway counting the seconds in between passing cars to later use that information to petition changing school bus routes so other buses wouldn't have to the cross the intersection.

Plaque sits underneath the two trees. The stone was taken from the O'Brien's farm.
A plaque sits underneath the two trees. The stone was taken from the O'Brien's farm. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Essay on friendship

As the trees continue to grow every year, so does the act of giving.

For the past 34 years, a committee made up of friends and family of O'Brien and Taves have been awarding one student at Kingsville High School a bursary to pursue post secondary education.

The recipient for the 2024 year has been chosen and will be awarded at Kingsville High School's graduation ceremony on June 27.

Students considering applying for the $2,000 bursary are asked to write an essay on friendship — something Cowell and members of the bursary committee who get together once a year know well.

"This many years later [friends] are still connected to [Peter and Shane] even though they have been gone longer than they were here," said Incitti.

"Shane and Peter, they were the best of my friends and anybody who ever met them knew they were good guys," said Cowell, standing in the shade of the two oak trees.

"They are gone but I always say, as long as they are in our hearts they are never gone."