A 29-year-old New Jersey police officer and father of two young boys was killed in a three-car accident on his way to work Tuesday, authorities say.
Matthew Tarentino, a Summit cop who taught the DARE program to local elementary students and was beloved in the community, died in the 6:20 a.m. crash on Route 78 in Bernards. Authorities say Tarentino was driving to work when a Toyota Camry going westbound crossed over the median and hit him. Tarentino's car, also a Toyota Camry, then overturned and was hit by a Honda Accord that was behind him, also going eastbound.
Tarentino was pronounced dead on the scene; the other drivers were taken to Morristown Hospital, where the other Camry driver also died. The Accord driver has non-life threatening injuries.
The wreck shut down all eastbound lanes on the highway for hours Tuesday, causing at least an 8-mile backup as the morning rush got underway.
Tarentino is survived by his wife and 2- and 4-year-old sons. His wife is pregnant with their third child; the baby is expected in late summer or early fall. The City of Summit Police Department announced the young officer's death "with great sadness" in a Facebook post.
"Matt was a unique officer, he was a gentleman," said Summit Mayor Nora Radest. "He always had a smile and he spent a lot of time focusing on his community."
Just last week, Tarentino received a community policing award from the New Jersey attorney general. Tarentino was a fixture in Summit, chaperoning middle school class trips to Washington, D.C., for years in addition to his work with DARE.
He spent time at the Summit YMCA teaching pre-K and kindergarten students about bike and pool safety, as well as stranger danger. He read to other kids on a day celebrating Dr. Seuss, and even dressed the part. Tarentino recently spoke to students as part of Community Helper Day, June Chang, the superintendent of Summit schools said.
"He was always so bright and happy and he wanted to answer each question," said fifth grader Pavel Yurkov, who went to the Summit police station after school Tuesday. "He was always really nice and really helpful. And he taught us a lot about making the right choice and resisting drugs."
Tarentino was supposed to speak at a DARE graduation ceremony for fifth-grade students at Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School Tuesday, the day he died. The ceremony was canceled.
"Officer Tarentino was an important part of the Summit community and a well-known face amongst the students and staff in Summit Public Schools," Chang said in a statement.
She added that parents should speak to their kids about Tarentino's death, and the school would help provide grieving resources.
Jodi Sargeant, who lives in Summit, called the officer's death "a loss for the whole community, especially the children who will really miss him in schools."
"I'm devastated, everyone in town is," said Summit resident Donna Puzella. "And my heart is broken for his life being cut so short, especially for his wife and young children."
The investigation is ongoing.