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Reflecting on Saturday’s Fatal Wreck on A1A: Untold Stories of Lost Lives

| May 13, 2014

Perhaps because of its narrowness, perhaps because drivers don't expect it there, a stretch of A1A in the Hammock has been the scene of particularly violent wrecks in the last few years, as when the peace activist Jigme Nurbu, the Dali Lama's nephew, was killed while walking along the highway three years ago. A peace memorial was maintained on A1A in Norbu's name for two years (see the image above), but then vanished. (© FlaglerLive)

Perhaps because of its narrowness, perhaps because drivers don’t expect it there, a stretch of A1A in the Hammock has been the scene of particularly violent wrecks in the last few years, as when the peace activist Jigme Nurbu, the Dali Lama’s nephew, was killed while walking along the highway three years ago. A peace memorial was maintained on A1A in Norbu’s name for two years (see the image above), but then vanished. (© FlaglerLive)

Of the thousands of miles my wife and I put on our vehicles every year, a substantial number are tallied on State Road A1A, the coastal highway. From the splendor of Matanzas Inlet to the delightful old-time-beach-town charm of Flagler Beach, A1A is our portal to everything good and bad, sublime and tacky about northeast Florida. On Saturday, a beautiful opening act for Mother’s Day, the bad showed itself a mile from our front door. A small Ford, turning south onto A1A from 16th Road, drove directly into the path of a Hyundai SUV which hit the Ford broadside on the driver’s side door.

I was at one of my favorite places on A1A, the hardware store just down the street. I heard the ambulance as it turned onto the road from the nearby fire station. My wife, running errands of her own, saw the immediate aftermath of the wreck. She returned home to recount the scene: the paramedics working frantically to resuscitate a man, one leg terribly mangled, while the woman behind the wheel of the Hyundai wailed in pain as she was attended to on the grass. So many people, my wife said, rushed to help. Traffic backed up behind the wreck, but not one horn was heard. My wife’s cellphone rang, and an acquaintance who lives near the accident scene reported that it didn’t look like the man was going to make it.

A few hours later, I turned onto A1A and headed for the Publix on 16th Road. The intersection was a grisly still-life. Surrounded by flashing lights and traffic cones, the vehicles remained at rest, the destroyed car bent nearly double around the front of the battered SUV, the black and tan vehicles of the Highway Patrol an unspoken answer to the question, “Was anyone killed?” With the tangle of metal barely yards away, the Publix parking lot seemed quieter than usual. Inside, I exchanged a comment on the wreck with a familiar employee, who also travels many miles on A1A, and we both shook our heads. What can you do?

By evening, the first reports had trickled out. Colleen Hess, the 41-year-old driver of the Hyundai, a local woman, was at Florida Hospital Flagler in serious condition. The 57-year-old driver of the Ford, George Kwasniak of Witchita, Kansas, was dead. His 58-year-old wife Vicky Kwasniak, sitting beside him, was in critical condition. Everyone was wearing a seat belt. Unknown, and likely unknowable, was why the man from Kansas, turning onto A1A from a stop-sign-controlled side street on a clear late morning, had driven into the path of the SUV.

I will spare you the usual ruminations on life’s fragile thread and resist the temptation to sermonize on how everything can change in an instant. But as the scene was finally cleared and traffic resumed its ebb and flow I found myself wanting to know about the journey of three people on A1A and how it ended so tragically. Thornton Wilder wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey, about five unrelated people who die in a bridge collapse, in 1927, and ever since journalists have been using accidents as a convenient device to study how lives can suddenly and terribly intertwine. It’s been a long time since I had to ponder those questions professionally, but old habits are hard to break.

Were the couple from Kansas seasonal residents here in the Hammock? Were they visiting here for Mothers Day? Were they, like so many others, just passing through the area, forsaking the monotony of the Interstate for scenic A1A? The woman in the car lost her husband; was he also a father? A grandfather? Someone’s brother? Of course, he was somebody’s son. And the woman from Palm Coast, lying injured in the hospital—was she running errands? Was she on her way home? She was reported to be a Realtor. Was she working?

Unless there is some extraordinary circumstance—a charter bus wreck, multiple deaths and the like—fatal traffic accidents are considered routine news. There is an initial account, maybe a brief follow-up if there is a local angle. For family members there is mourning and the dreadful upheaval of life plans changed forever. Traveling back and forth daily through that intersection, I might lift off the gas a bit and look to see whether someone—it happens too often there—is trying to beat me through the intersection. Is that what happened Saturday? What was the man from Kansas thinking as he turned south on A1A? In his final moment, did he say anything to his wife, or she to him? The sadness is that our encounter with this man’s life happens only with his death.

Steve Robinson moved to Flagler County after a 30-year career in New York and Atlanta in print, TV and the Web. Reach him by email here.

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5 Responses for “Reflecting on Saturday’s Fatal Wreck on A1A: Untold Stories of Lost Lives”

  1. Johnny Deb says:

    Beg’s the question, would red light cameras prevented this tragedy? Oops, silly me, only in Palm Coast.

  2. Billy Bob says:

    It should be mentioned that after the Dali Lama’s nephew was killed the speed limit was lowered on that entire stretch of A1A. I think they could cut it in half and there would still be fatalities. I think they could put a light at every intersection along A1A and people would still pull out into the path of oncoming traffic. People make mistakes. Normally when we make a mistake we shrug it off, learn from it, and move on. Driving is one of the few things where your “simple” mistake can cause loss of life. It’s too easy to just blurt out “he must have been texting” or “she was obviously speeding”. The bottom line is for whatever unknown reason a driver did the wrong thing, and it ended tragically and hurt innocent people.

    My own unique experience could shed some light. My mother (who thankfully gave up driving years ago!) was NEVER comfortable driving. She was terrified all of the time, didn’t understand intersections, always drove 10-15mph under the speed limit because she didn’t know how to handle a sudden situation, yet for as “safe” as she was she would follow too closely, make abrupt lane changes, stop in the middle of the road “while she figured it out” and pretty much just pointed her car where she wanted to go and expected “the angels” to get her there. She would say “I hate driving” almost every time we went anywhere. I was involved in multiple accidents when I was young in which she was driving. Somehow I lived through it. I did not then understand or realize then that she was actually a terrible driver. I grew up thinking people just got into car accidents. Perhaps my negative experience with her poor driving skills is what contributed to my becoming a professional driver for a living. I have driven literally millions of miles with (thankfully) zero accidents. My secret? 100% focus. Now I see people almost every day do the same types of bone-headed, unexplainable, extremely dangerous maneuvers that she used to do. And I avoid them constantly. I have been run off the road so many times I lost count. I expect that they are going to pull out directly in front of me and already having my “plan B” ready. I don’t think my mom went over the speed limit once in her whole life. Yet she was an awful driver. (My rant doesn’t mean I don’t love my mother… ♥)

    Maybe one day technology will prevent a driver from pulling out or turning directly into the path of another. At which point their license should be automatically suspended. There are so many people who should not be driving. They are the ones who constantly try to ruin my accident free record. I can spot you a quarter mile away, hunched over your steering wheel, wide-eyed, gripping it so tightly the blood has drained from your fingers, turning left with your right blinker on at a mind numbing 3.5mph just 100 feet in front of the oncoming semi. Just like my mother. And I know that YOU KNOW who you are. She knew she shouldn’t be driving. And to her credit she finally stopped driving altogether. When are you going to stop? Before, or after the fatality?

  3. The Truth says:

    My thoughts and prayers are with all of those who were affected by this. A tragedy like no other.

    We hear it all the time, but it can’t be stressed enough. We live each day of our lives, we get upset about things and let things bother us. In the end, our lives can end in the blink of an eye and all of that doesn’t matter. Please live every day as if it were your last. Never be afraid to say I love you. Never assume there’s always tomorrow to say something. Cherish every moment you have as your life can end in the blink of an eye.

  4. Florida Native. says:

    God forbid the DOT 4-lane A1A and make it 1,000,000,000,000% safer. But that would take away from the novelty. Meantime A1A continues to be a death trap it was 50 years ago and it is still today. I get it. It’s a cute little road. However cars are lighter,faster and better insulated than they were 50 years ago plus people are texting,talking on the phone,looking at the GPS,slapping the kids in the back seat,daydreaming,not paying attention and so on and so on. My sympathies to all the families involved. Drive safely folks and hopefully the red light spy cameras will become just an unpleasant memory. Thank you Mr. Robinson for this article. Hug a loved one today.

  5. Frank Diliberto says:

    Stop with the red light camera nonsense when it does not apply!!!!!!!!

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