News Column

Group Prepares for Safety of Chimayo Pilgrims

March 26, 2013

Chris Quintana

Federal, state, local and tribal governments have begun safety preparations for the annual Good Friday pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayo on Friday.

Every year, thousands of Catholics from various parts of the state walk to the shrine as part of their Holy Week observations. And anytime thousands of people gather, disaster can strike, said Martin Vigil, the Santa Fe county emergency manager.

To deal with such concerns, Vigil said 26 organizations have partnered to respond quickly to any issues that arise. The groups are following the National Incident Management System guidelines put out by the secretary of the federal Department of Homeland Security.

"There are five individual districts and four levels of government working together," Vigil said. "You don't get that too often."

The New Mexico Department of Transportation has begun prepping U.S. 84/285, N.M. 76, N.M. 502 and N.M. 503 for pilgrims making their way to the santuario, said David Martinez, District 5 assistant engineer.

Martinez said the department will start putting up electronic signs to remind motorists of walkers. He said crews are also putting out trash bins and five temporary light stations for walkers. Crews will mark walking paths with orange barrels where the road shoulder disappears, as is the case along northbound U.S. 84/285 between the N.M. 599 exchange and The Santa Fe Opera.

Martinez said crews will be monitoring roads around the clock from Thursday afternoon to Saturday afternoon.

Martinez also said walkers should be careful with any type of flame, such as cigarette butts, because the fire danger is high this year. Noting that litter has been a problem in the past, he said people should also be aware of trash cans along the route.

One of biggest issues emergency responders face, however, is traffic congestion caused by pedestrians and vehicles. Often pilgrims will walk on both sides of the road, instead of sticking to one side or another. This causes motorists to slow down, which ultimately can affect how quickly crews can respond to an emergency, Vigil said.

If walkers do see an emergency vehicle, they should get to the right side of the road and stay there until it passes, he said.

There is sporadic cellphone service along the route, Vigil warned, but where one carrier has a dead spot, another might not. People will be patrolling on bicycles, ATVs and horses to help deal with problems.

Santa Fe County will also provide a number of portable toilets along the route.

Roadside vendors are banned, a policy that has been more strongly enforced since 2010, when a child was struck by a car while crossing the road to get to his family's stand.

"It has certainly improved safety by not allowing that setup," Vigil said.

However, Capt. Adan Mendoza, with the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office, said of the ban, "As long as they are not causing safety or access problems, we won't be enforcing it as much."

There will also be a DWI checkpoint on Thursday night between Nambe and the santuario, Santa Fe Sheriff Robert Garcia said.

Rio Arriba County Sheriff's Office spokesman Jake Arnold said Rio Arriba deputies would be patrolling and monitoring traffic, but that he couldn't comment on how they would deal with roadside vendors.

At the santuario, co-manager Joanne Sandoval said she has about 35 to 40 volunteers ready to greet pilgrims, manage traffic, check bags and fill plastic bags with holy dirt.

As of Monday, March 25, she said many people had already come to the santuario, but she said the church would be the busiest between 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Friday, March 29. In the past, Sandoval said that pilgrims have waited up to two hours in line to get inside.

Sandoval said the lower parking lot, which has about 40 to 50 spots, will be open, but she expects it to fill up early Friday morning. This year, the santuario will also have two portable toilets. Sandoval also said that she still needs more volunteers, and those interested can contact her at 505-351-9961.

The North Central Regional Transit District will have two buses travelling between Chimayo and Espanola between 8 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Friday, according to a statement on the organization website. Buses start outside the Santa Claran Hotel, 464 North Riverside Drive, Espanola, and end outside the Bennie J. Chavez Center, 354A Juan Medina Road, Chimayo, which is a mile away from the santuario. Rides are free, but the statement said delays should be expected given the heavy pedestrian traffic.

The National Weather Service has forecast a low of 34 degrees and partly cloudy skies for Thursday night, and a high of 65 degrees and partly sunny skies Friday, though Vigil warned that walkers should be prepared for all kinds of weather.

Source: (c)2013 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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