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Behind the Story: Jigme Norbu’s Death–and Flagler’s Responsibility to His Last Steps

| February 15, 2011

Jigme Norbu’s memorial on Monday afternoon on A1A. (FlaglerLive)

[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.]

It started with an email from a trusted source (let’s call him Richard): “I just learned that the nephew of the Dalai Lama is on a walk along the A1A from St. Augustine to Palm Beach ‘Walk for Tibet’ and  his group is staying overnight tonite (Monday) in the Hammock, and will be walking through Flagler Beach on Tuesday.  Just going to meet them at JT’s shortly. Sorry about the short notice, but thought you might be interested.”

I was. But it was late. Richard had sent his email at 8:15 p.m.  I read it at 8:40. I was wrapping up what I thought was going to be a shorter day than usual, trying at least to nominally have an hour’s Valentine observance with Cheryl, who was just ending her own marathon day with the youth orchestra.

I looked up the nephew’s website. There he was, Jigme Norbu, in a picture from the Jacksonville airport, under what proved to be his last headline: “Day before the walk Sunday, feb13th arriving at Jacksonville Florida.” I could always catch him the following day somewhere along A1A, as I had the “World Guy” doing his walk for Diabetes earlier this month. The World Guy had done his walk along less scenic, noisier U.S. 1. I’d asked him why. “Safety,” he’d said, citing the narrower, more gravely confines of A1A.

Norbu was traveling with a small group. Catching him at the restaurant might be more convenient for all of us than interrupting him on his walk the next day. He likes to walk 25 miles a day or more. Liked. Valentine would wait.

As I drove up A1A I noticed in the far distance, past J.T.’s, that sinister twinkle of red and blue police lights. Wouldn’t be responsible to ignore them for a cushier interview. I drove on to investigate, parked behind a few trucks, walked up to the scene. The familiar faces of the fire police were there, as was the Florida Highway Patrol. Pedestrian hit by a car, I was told. A fatality. A sheriff’s deputy offered to get a highway patrol trooper who could give me the basics. He asked that I not walk further. I was on the sidewalk, paralleling the school district’s adult education building and parking lot. I looked around. From where I stood, I could see it: across the street, a body laid out, covered by a thin tarp.

I had no way to reach Richard directly. But this is how a reporter’s mind works, clinically, coldly, hoping to get every story whatever the circumstances: a body is laying across the road, and I’m calling Cheryl, asking her to call J.T.’s, locate Richard there, let him know I’d be late and ask him to call me.

Moments later the highway patrol trooper allowed that the body across the street was that of a man who’d been walking for Tibet. I was stunned, but didn’t—couldn’t—believe it was Norbu. He was traveling with three other people, maybe others who’d joined him along the way. He was an experienced walker: almost 8,000 miles so far, on terrains and in some countries less hospitable than A1A’s well-marked pavement. It couldn’t possibly be him. Not on a mission like that. Not that any mission’s virtue has ever interfered with cruelty’s alternate designs. Not that anyone one else’s life was less significant to lose in such an insignificant way.

Before leaving my desk I’d printed Norbu’s webpage’s Florida walk material. I took it out to show the trooper, who couldn’t tell me who the man on the ground was, though she read the printout several times, and gradually made it apparent that it was him. She just couldn’t say so. Norbu’s family in Indiana hadn’t been notified. Moments later I reached Richard by phone. He confirmed it.

Editor’s Blog

By then it was 9:16 p.m. The call to the highway patrol had gone out at 7:26. Norbu’s body was only now being removed. It had taken the medical examiner that long to get there from St. Augustine. The group Norbu was traveling with had gone back to St. Augustine, having been told that that’s where the body would be returned that evening. The 31-year-old Palm Coast driver of the Kia that hit Norbu, Keith O’Dell, was still there, cooperating with police all along. He’d done nothing wrong. He may have been hugging the white line, but that’s not illegal. It is illegal, the trooper told me, to walk with traffic in Florida, though that’s not the sort of detail that’ll shield O’Dell from criticism that’ll be as unjust as it’ll be malinformed, criticism likely to pale compared with the guilt he’ll live with, given the dimensions of the tragedy. The word accident is often misused. Not in this case. It could have happened to any of us, in either man’s shoes.

I drove down to the Hammock Wine and Cheese Shoppe, where Richard was with Damian Collins, the owner, who’d been among the last—if not the last—to speak with Norbu, less than an hour before he died. She’d arranged with him to host him and his group for the night on her property. She’d set out three cans of coconut milk, some food, a big bar of soap and a towel on the picnic table between the gallery and the shop, and that note: “Please make yourselves at home. It is an honor to have you here.” It reminded me of the bowl of fruit and crayon note I’d left, 35 years ago, for my father on his bed the night he died, before I knew. (He died at 46. Norbu was 45.) Simple gestures like that take on a meaning we never imagined, and sometimes, like Damian’s note, speak words that say a lot more than they’d been meant to say.

But a little perspective is in order. The fact that this took place in Flagler County isn’t in itself relevant, and certainly shouldn’t be made relevant in the way that it risks being—in giving this county the kind of attention, however dubious, that it craves so much, sometimes to embarrassing excess. To seek a moment’s national fame out of Norbu’s death would have the same slapstick vulgarity as the passing mention of, say, Palm Coast on the Letterman show. It misses the forest for vanity’s trees. The tragedy, in this case, isn’t even Norbu’s death. That’s one death: enormous for the emotional resonance of the cause he represented, incalculable for his family, as any death always is, but also overwhelmed by a far greater loss. The point of his walks, the point of his devotion to his cause, was to bring attention to the ongoing crime of China’s oppression of millions in Tibet, of China’s murder of hundreds of thousands there, of China’s ongoing cultural genocide that, with time, may well reduce Tibetan culture to a memory. Norbu’s death was an accident. Tibet’s death isn’t. And given a globe’s complicit silence, it isn’t China’s doing alone.

Flagler County is a small world, often intentionally so, often too impressed by its own smallness, though that’s not a local distinction, either. Norbu’s walk was a small breach against the smallness. It would be compounding loss upon loss if his death had a greater effect elsewhere than in what will always be the grounds of his very last steps.

Flagler County now has a responsibility to those steps, to his memory, if not his mission. A few potted plants by the side of the road won’t do: let’s not bury this responsibility with Chinese silence.

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15 Responses for “Behind the Story: Jigme Norbu’s Death–and Flagler’s Responsibility to His Last Steps”

  1. Justice for All says:

    Thanks, Pierre. I’ve also found the responses posted on the report of his death extremely interesting – great sadness at the loss without fixing blame.

  2. Will says:

    This is just so sad…

    What would be a fitting memorial? For his 8,000 miles of walking to end here, it should be something which can teach of the quest – the geography -and the man. Damian’s faded “Free Tibet” bumper sticker probably puzzled some people – but people need to learn the story.

    Maybe some local ideas and energy combined – in time – with ideas from his family and friends in Illinois – might create the right way to remember Jigme Norbu and the Tibetan cause.

  3. mcas says:

    Wow — Flagler counties failure to provide safe access for pedestrians and bike riders is the best way to honor this man’s death. Stop building roads to allow for speeding and start building complete streets where ANYONE can feel safe, inside or outside of a car.

  4. Charles Ericksen, Jr says:

    This is not the first, nor last death on that unlit portion of A1A. Awhile ago, a motorcyclist lost his life at the South end of the route, when he struck the median curbing and lost control. More recently, a young lady lost her life, while trying to save her dog, that broke off its leash. That was followed by a worker at JT’s restaurant, who while travelling home after work on his bicycle, was struck and killed. It is tough riding the sidewalk, especially at night, but that’s the only safe way to go.

  5. . says:

    to mcas if he only used the PATH on the other side of the road

  6. just a citizen says:

    I’m sorry…but the guy was walking the road….in the dark…on the wrong side of the street. Everything he could do wrong he did…that’s why this happened. With all due respect, I am not taking the loss of a human life lightly, but he’s dead because he was negligent and for no other reason. There is a side walk right there….he decided not to use it. Let’s cut the crap about a memorial to stupidity. Why not build a memorial to the poor guy that hit him and the trauma the children in the car suffered because of this person’s actions…..Roads are for vehicle’s…with lights.

  7. J.J. Graham says:

    Reading this and the previous article I am struck with the delicate nature that is life. I did not know this man, but I find myself deeply saddened that he is no longer here. One can only hope that their is some purpose to such a tragedy. My heart goes out to all that were involved.

  8. . says:

    The purpose could be to let others Know of the danger of walking on the road at night with no regaurd to the rules of the road ie when walking on or by a road you walk against traffic or on a walkway.

  9. Will says:

    To reply to “just a citizen”…

    If the road is so dark, then maybe the sidewalk in the bushes is darker. Maybe he couldn’t even have seen that a sidewalk was there.

    If he had simply walked facing traffic instead of with traffic, he would have seen the car. If – If – If…

    The memorial idea is not to commemorate the accident – but to remember the life of a special person who lost his life while passing through, and the special cause for which he walked.

  10. My condolences to his family, the organizers and walkers and all Tibetans for such loss. We need to remember what Jigme Norbu lived and died for and make this world better.

  11. A Friend says:

    Thank you so much for this beautifully written tribute. I’m a business acquaintance of Jigme’s, from Bloomington, and I spoke to him nearly every day. It’s starting to set in that I will never hear his laughter or see his happy face againg and I’m surprised by how deep the pain goes. He was a very kind, generous man who felt very strongly about his responsibility to Tibetans worldwide and if there’s any peace that can be drawn from this tragedy at all, it’s that his death won’t be in vain as I hope it will only serve to increase awareness of Tibet’s oppression.

  12. just a citizen says:

    To Will

    I understand your point….and that’s great, but it seems some like to point the finger as to assign blame… and for all his good intentions….he and his organizers are to blame….not the road…not the County….and not the poor guy who hit him….no one seems to be mentioning the fact that the dali’s nephew’s poor planning left those involved, including two children to live with this tradgedy.
    If this was some transiet walking along the road would be buidling a memorial there…………?

  13. Marilyn Stanley says:

    I love your writing and agree with you.
    But…….don’t bet on it.
    I live in the Hammock….few here were really interested in the meaning of the walk and the person who was killed.
    Tragedy , yes. But, I don’t believe there will be any interest in carrying it further.
    I have been involved in peace and non-viloence most of my life and it is just not happening here.

  14. Van says:

    Quite a shock, since I had driven thru Florida a couple days before this happened, though not on the east coast. I was in southern Alabama on the 14th and very briefly heard of it on a radio news report, while driving. Pierre captures the significance of this tragedy for the Flagler area. It should bring Norbu’s cause to the attention of residents, there and everywhere, though as Marilyn says, it probably won’t. Just another dumb, freak accident.

    Having just finished driving across eight states over the past 44 days, spending a few weeks in southern Florida to escape the worst of Wisconsin’s winter for a change, I’m amazed more people aren’t mown down by the blizzard of cars, trucks and monstrous roaring vehicles up and down every road in this Great Country of Ours. This transportation system is designed to make us all crazy, even if unconsciously. If you’re not hurtling along these freeways at least 75 mph you’re left in everyone else’s speeding wake, and even feel like you’re obstructing others’ more efficient passage. I saw at least 6 major accidents along these roads, two of them very serious indeed. Dead bodies and all. Just another day in Madhouse America.

  15. Richard says:

    and, 49 days after his sad death, his spirit will be released in another Buddhist ceremony at the accident site Sunday at 12 noon. I saw the first swallowtail kite back in the hammock today. Could it be?

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