Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Death on the GWB (A Work of Fiction)

Water clearance at the mid-span of the George Washington Bridge is 212 feet.

 It was a perfect early fall afternoon. The wind had vanished, not a cloud in a radiant blue sky. The air could be deeply breathed, the colors bursting from nearby trees. And so, a Fort Lee resident, aged 61, Tom Dolan and his wife decided to walk across the great gray bridge they stared at every day from their apartment a few hundred yards away.

They had done this many times notwithstanding the fear that accompanied each step of Mr. Dolan's journey. He always walked as far as he could from the railing intended to act as impenetrable barrier to the Hudson below. He almost seemed to list into the lane of traffic that sped by no more than an arms length away. His gaze never veered towards the water, his neck locked in place, peering straight ahead, or at his own feet.

It was not the two legged occupants of this walkway that troubled him so, but the two wheeled ones. Although he did worry that some unhinged human might suddenly descend upon him and hoist him over the railing and to a watery grave, he reserved almost all of his anxiety for the hordes of bikers who fled the city on weekend mornings for their ride up the Palisades.

They came in packs, a multi-colored flash that took up far too much of the limited terrain. He would flinch internally each time one went by, an imperceptible twitch in his step. He talked with his wife about those who sped past, some giving fair warning and a thank you for moving out of their way, while others offered neither notice or gratitude.

Yet it was not the ones he could see approaching, but those that came from behind, that concerned him the most. He never heard them, never. Whether it was the noise from the traffic close by, or advancing age made no difference. The problem was the riders who thought he knew when he didn't.

The New York/New Jersey Cycle Club was founded in 1927. It now boasted close to 3000 members. It invited people of all ages and abilities to join and offered the opportunity for "fun, friendship, fitness and fantastic views of the metropolitan area."

Among its most popular rides were those that crossed the Hudson River each Saturday and Sunday and headed into Bergen County, through northern New Jersey and then into Rockland County, New York, before returning to where the journey began.

On this day a trip left from the east side of the city, at 72nd Street near the Central Park Loeb's Boathouse. 37 riders met at 6:30 AM to begin a 61 mile journey that promised "colorful foliage" and a stop for lunch with free bagels and water.

When he read the description, Bob Smith immediately signed up. Smith had been a member of the club for five years. He was 53, fit after a full season of being a weekend warrior on the bike. He loved everything about these opportunities. Living within blocks of the Boathouse made it that much easier.

Tom Dolan had an uneasy feeling as he left the apartment. Not that he didn't always have a similar sensation each time he was about to place a shaky foot on the road to Manhattan. But he said nothing, for anything he uttered would only make him look foolish. He and his wife exited their building, telling the doorman about their intended walk and received perfunctory congratulations on their choice and their stamina.

Bob Smith enjoyed a remarkable day. Yet, coming back into Bergen County he felt slightly depressed. As the bridge came ever closer to him, he experienced  a pang of anxiety that quickly passed. He wrote it all off as a reaction to knowing that this experience would soon be behind him.

As Dolan took his first steps onto the short pathway leading to the bridge, Smith was about 300 yards behind, coming down the last incline on Hudson Terrace. He was toward the front of the pack of riders, third in line. He would pass under Route 95, the roadway above him that took motorists through the toll booth and onto the mile long span that connected New York and New Jersey. Shortly after, he would make a sharp left turn, leaving Hudson Terrace and entering the same route that Dolan was now on.

The website for the New York/ New Jersey Cycle Club had a section devoted to the biker's responsibility code. Apart from warning that no devices of distraction like headphones or ear-buds  should ever be used, it stressed that safety for yourself and others was the first rule of the road. Bob Smith took this advice seriously, and considered himself anything but a danger while on his bike.

Entrance onto the walkway leading to the bridge was narrow. The lead bikes in Smith's group bunched up, and he took the opportunity to move to the head of the pack. It was the first time that he had taken on this role for the crossing into Manhattan. He felt strong and there was a small rush of adrenaline that accompanied this decision.

About 250 yards ahead, Dolan and his wife were just entering the bridge expanse. Dolan's gait always changed as soon as this happened, each step with a little wobble caused not by the tremors from the automobiles so close by on his left, but by the acrophobia that he tried to control.

Smith passed several walkers as he moved ever closer towards Dolan and his wife. He gave small shouts of "on your left" as he came upon those in front of him. Each of those he went by received a small nod of thanks. Dolan and his wife were next up, now only about 50 yards from the leader of the pack.

As the distance between him and the two walkers narrowed, Smith gave his note of warning. Dolan heard nothing. A split second later, Smith repeated his statement, this time with more urgency.
Dolan's wife heard the second cry distinctly. She was walking no more than a foot from the barrier that separated her from the waters more than 200 feet below. She reached her arm out to pull her husband away from the bike that was now coming veryclose. She yelled for him to "Move, MOVE".

When Smith saw that the man in front of him was not reacting as he should, but seemed to be veering INTO HIS INTENDED PATH, and would leave no room to pass on the left, he panicked. In that instant, he surveyed the options before him. He could try to move left but the railing separating him from the cars on the bridge awaited this decision. He could slam on his brakes and try to minimize the impact on the body now looming almost directly in front. Or, he thought he saw an opening to the right, between the man and his wife. If he could accelerate and slither through...

As the arm of Dolan's wife and part of her left side came into contact with the speeding bicycle there was a distinct snapping sound. The force of the impact had broken her left arm and cracked several ribs. In an instant she was pushed violently into the steel rail on her right. She quivered momentarily from the pain.Then she bounced off and pitched down head first onto the waiting concrete path.

At its worst, there was a three hour backup reported at the toll plaza leading to the George Washington Bridge and passage into New York. The first emergency vehicle arrived at the scene only four minutes after the collision. The transit authority reported that it was the first biker-pedestrian fatality in the history of the roadway.

Tom Dolan was uninjured, not a scratch on him. He stood over the body of his wife and let out small sobs, one after another, after another.

Bob Smith was questioned briefly by the police at the scene and then issued a Miranda warning. He refused to answer further questions.

The prosecutor's office is investigating the incident and said it had no statement to make at this time.


Anonymous said...

outstanding journalism. disaster is seconds. all were hurt

ron a.

Anonymous said...

Awful but.
As the distance between him and the two walkers narrowed, Dolan gave his note of warning. Smith heard nothing. A split second later, Dolan repeated his statement, this time with more urgency.

Wasn't it smith who gave the note of warning, not Dolan?

Anonymous said...

How terribly, terribly sad……. :-((((