Reflecting on Saturday’s Fatal Wreck on A1A: Untold Stories of Lost Lives
FlaglerLive | May 13, 2014
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.