[Note: A ceremonial tribute and a symbolic three-mile walk in Jigme Norbu’s memory was held on Thursday, Feb. 17, at the accident site. Details here.]
Jigme Norbu, nephew to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, had logged 7,800 miles on 19 walks and on his bike before beginning his latest today, and what proved to be his last–a 300-mile trek starting in St. Augustine and going south. Norbu and two companions were to have ended their “Walk for Tibet Florida” later this month in West Palm Beach.
Norbu, 45, was struck and killed by a passing driver just before 7:30 this evening (Feb. 14) on State Road A1A in the Hammock, across the street from the Adult and Community Education building, some 10 miles north of Flagler Beach and 25 miles south of St. Augustine.
- Behind the Story: Jigme Norbu’s Death–and Flagler’s Responsibility to His Last Steps
- Hammock Ceremony for Dalai Lama’s Nephew At 10 a.m. Thursday; Walk Will Go On
- Walk for Tibet Website
Norbu was about three minutes away from his rendezvous point with his companions, who’d gone ahead in late afternoon to wait for him at T.J.’s Seafood Shack, the restaurant. (Just last September, an employee from the restaurant was killed by a motorist while biking home late at night on A1A.) A mile or so south, Damian Collins, owner of the Hammock Wine and Cheese Shoppe, who may have been the last person to speak to Norbu, had set out drinks, food and other provisions for him and his companions, along with a tent–for Norbu–and other accommodations for the others so they could spend the night.
Collins had driven up to speak with Norbu when she found out he was nearby, taking him coconut milk to reinforce him. The sun had just set. He was barely two or three miles north. “He was really smiley and calm and all about what he was doing,” Collins said. He told her: “This is why I’m doing this. Here are some fliers. You’re why I’m doing this.” He wanted to get to Flagler Beach that night. She dissuaded him, citing the distance, and offered him and his companions a place to stay. Back at her shop, Collins, who was on her way elsewhere for the evening, set out a few goods on a picnic table in the backyard–including soap and a towel–and a note: “Tibet Group! Hi! Please make yourselves at home. It is an honor to have you here. Damian.”
It is about the time when Collins was writing the note, or moments later, that Norbu died.
“He was walking southbound and was struck by a car. It’s still under investigation whether he was partly in the road or off the side of the road,” a Florida Highway Patrol trooper at the scene said this evening. At 9:15 p.m., Norbu’s body was still on the west side of the road, covered by a tarp, awaiting the arrival of the medical examiner from St. Augustine (he arrived shortly after, and the body was moved to a morgue in St. Augustine). “He was walking on the edge of the road, on the white line, or very close to the white line, and he was walking with traffic,” the trooper said later.
It’s not clear why Norbu had chosen to walk on the west side of the road: there is a wide sidewalk on the east side of A1A, though the road isn’t lit, and the trees’ canopy obscure what glimmers might help guide a silhouette: Norbu may well have been hugging the white line as his only visible means of navigation. .
Norbu was struck by a dark gray 2001 Kia Sportage driven by Keith O’Dell, a 31-year-old resident of Blackwell Place in Palm Coast. O’Dell had a 5-year-old child with him, according to a highway patrol report. (The trooper at the scene said he had two children with him.)
O’Dell appeared willing to speak to a reporter, but his father intervened, said O’Dell was “too traumatized,” and drove him away in a pick-up truck at 10:10 p.m., leaving the Kia on the side of the road. By then O’Dell had spent several hours patiently cooperating with troopers, who had no more questions for him.
The right-front of the Kia was dented. The hood had buckled from the impact. The side mirror’s top plastic frame had chipped in a jagged pattern, likely from the violence of the impact, which also bent back the car’s antenna. The passenger side of the windshield was smashed in, but hadn’t shattered. The highway patrol late Monday evening had not determined whether charges would be filed. Alcohol was not a factor.
Norbu, a father of three, was the owner of a Tibetan restaurant in Bloomington, the Snow Lion. He was the son of the late Takster Rinpoche, elder brother to the Dali Lama. Rinpoche taught Tibetan studies at Indiana University Bloomington, was the founder of the Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center there, and had himself started long treks for Tibet. (Norbu was also overextended: In late 2009, he was “facing nearly $7 million in mortgage foreclosures on high-profile retail properties his company owns around Bloomington,” according to the Bloomington Herald-Times.)
Norbu was joined on his last walk by Donna Kim-Brand, who was providing support and a van, and two other companions.
“I want to personally request your support for the upcoming walk from St. Augustine along the coast to West Palm Beach,” Norbu wrote on a web page devoted to the Florida walk. He’d flown from Indianapolis to Jacksonville on Feb. 13. “On February 14th, our walk will cover over 300 miles and have many oppourtunities (sic.) to share our message of world peace, human rights, and the Tibetan struggle for independence. I am asking for your support on spreading the news of this walk for our global cause.”
Just last December he undertook a 250-mile walk in Taiwan, an especially significant location given Taiwan’s tortuous relationship with China, Tibet’s occupier. In fall, he’d taken a 557-mile walk from Indianapolis to Toronto.
Thinking back on her brief moment with Norbu–no more than a couple of minutes: “I didn’t want to bother him, I didn’t want to stop him,” she said–Collins remembered that she’d had her own Save Tibet bumper sticker on her pick-up truck. It’d been there 10 years. It had long since faded to something barely visible against the metal.
Watch Jigme Norbu speak outside the Chinese Consulate in chicago: