Tuesday, January 8, 2008

A Tragic Death and a Ghost Bike

As I rushed past the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge Sunday afternoon, I glimpsed a white bicycle chained to a signpost at the intersection of Canal and Bowery. The sorrowful woman standing near the bike, and the bouquet placed before it, made me curious. I asked her what was happening and learned about an extraordinary memorial project and the tragically short life of Sam Hindy.

His aunt, Sarah Foote, told me the story. Sam, a 27-year-old computer engineer from Brooklyn, rode his bike to Chinatown on the night of November 16, 2007 to meet a friend coming in on the bus from Boston with his own bike. They met and peddled back toward Brooklyn.

Sam was an experienced cyclist, but his familiar route in and out of Brooklyn was across the Brooklyn Bridge. The two became confused on the entrance ramp to the Manhattan Bridge --something that has happened to me in broad daylight--and wound up in traffic on the upper level of the bridge. They turned around and started to head back, but Sam hit a barrier and fell to the lower roadway--where a car struck and killed him. His companion survived.

The incident was vaguely familiar to me from the news, but Sam's aunt told me stories that brought the young man to life: his birth in Beirut where his father was a foreign correspondent, his education in New York public schools and at Northeastern, his "wide vistas," his love for his friends and family--and the Thanksgiving that he enlivened, when he was fully grown, by leading a gaggle of exuberant kids in a round of dancing. To describe him, she reached for one of his favorite superlatives: "Sam was just an awesome kid."

As we spoke, cyclists arrived at the white bicycle and left flowers. Sunday, it turned out, was the day of the Street Memorial Project's "Third Annual Memorial Ride and Walk." The international project commemorates the death of a cyclist by installing a white "ghost bike" at the spot. There are ghost bikes in cities as different as Chicago, London and Prague, with 41 in New York City.

The events of the day also included a memorial walk across Brooklyn Bridge in honor of pedestrians killed over the past year. The project calculates that 23 bicyclists and more than 100 pedestrians died in accidents in New York City last year. Official figures from the New York City Department of Transportation for the year have not yet been released, but a DOT study computed that 225 bicyclists were killed in New York City from 1996 to 2005.

The short memorial service that followed was sad but principled. Caroline Samponaro of Transportation Alternatives, which works for "better bicycling, walking and public transit, and fewer cars," spoke in honor of Sam and recalled all the cyclists and pedestrians killed by cars in New York City. Sam's father Steve--a journalist at Newsday who went on to found the Brooklyn Brewery--thanked the organizers of the event and described Sam as a man who loved rollerblading, skateboarding and biking. "Sam's preventable death has made us all see the importance of the work of Transportation Alternatives," he said. He added that our dependence on fossil-fueled vehicles is bad for the planet and a cause of the war in Iraq.

The assembled cyclists lifted their bikes in a salute and rode off to a rally at City Hall. The ghost bike, which had looked spectral with one bouquet before it, was now covered in a rainbow of blossoms. But that didn't heal the wound in his aunt's heart: "There's just a great hole where Sam used to be."

As for me, Sam Hindy is now more than a name in a headline. And I'll think hard the next time I pass a ghost bike.

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