An emotional senior project

Caleb Morgan and Sahvannah Costella look over a memorial set up for Sahvannah’s sister Shania on Crane Valley Road (426) in Oakhurst. Shania died in a car wreck there Jan. 7, 2017.
Caleb Morgan and Sahvannah Costella look over a memorial set up for Sahvannah’s sister Shania on Crane Valley Road (426) in Oakhurst. Shania died in a car wreck there Jan. 7, 2017. Sierra Star

Sahvannah Costella, and her close friend Caleb Morgan, look upon a memorial along Crane Valley Road (426) in Oakhurst, near Road 425B, in silence.

They don’t say much at first. Near that short stretch of roadway three months ago, Costella’s 16-year-old sister Shania suffered fatal injuries when she lost control of the SUV she was driving and overturned into China Creek.

Sahvannah, riding as passenger, tried unsuccessfully to save her sister. She managed to climb out of the wreck, and ran screaming for help into the night’s pouring rain.

It’s not easy for Costella and Morgan, both 17, to visit the memorial that has slowly grown in size after it was set up Jan. 8, the morning after Shania’s death. For Costella, it serves as memories of the horrific night where she lost her sister, and for Morgan, it means the loss of a longtime friend.

But now, for their senior project at Yosemite High School, the two have taken it upon themselves to work on changing that area into a permanent memorial for Shania, while adding a guard rail they say could have prevented her death.

“We’re trying to get a guard rail put up here to basically stop car crashes,” Morgan said. “If there was a rail, it would have prevented the death of Shania. Something needs to be done.”

Installation of a guard rail could prove a difficult goal. The California Highway Patrol, in a collision report, noted Shania was never issued a driver’s license, had a provisional instruction permit that restricts passengers to parents, guardians, licensed drivers 25 and older, or certified instructors, and was driving at an “unsafe speed for the current wet roadway conditions.”

Ahmad Alkhayyat, Madera County’s Public Works Director, said based on data available to the county, Shania is the only fatality by a car running off the road at that location. In the last five years, he said there have been eight reported incidents with four minor injuries, and only one other vehicle - with a DUI driver at the wheel - that went off the roadway into a grassy area, not the creek.

That number of collisions, Alkhayyat said, and other factors such as the area’s 35 mph speed limit wasn’t enough to justify a barrier. Guard rails, he said, as well as stop signs, pavement markings, or other traffic safety implements have state and federal engineering standards that have to be adhered to, and that section of Road 426 is, without a barrier, already consistent with them.

“We want to do everything we can to help them honor their daughter, sister, and friend,” Alkhayyat said. “But within the established criteria. We have to take all other considerations into making a determination about a project like this, and from these criteria, a guard rail was not warranted.”

Alkhayyat, and District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler agreed one death was too many when it comes to county roads. But Alkhayyat said Costella and Morgan’s project puts him in a difficult position.

“I’m not trying to minimize what they’re doing at all,” Alkhayyat said. “I’m speaking from my heart here to everyone who was affected by this terrible tragedy. We want to help however we can. Maybe we can all go walk the area together, and look at some possible changes that could be made.”

After an online petition on the guard rail gained more than 300 signatures in a few days, Wheeler said he directed staff to consider potential changes for that stretch of road, and awaits their reports.

The family, along with Morgan and Costella, has also considered installing park benches at the site and some sort of permanent memorial, which may prove more feasible than a guard rail.

For now though, what remains is a collection of stuffed animals and a cross inscribed with Shania’s full name - Shania Faith Costella - alongside hand-written messages of love, photos, and passages from scripture.

And at night, solar-powered lights shine out into the darkness - a glimmer of hope for a family filled with grief in search for a permanent form of closure.