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Monday, September 23, 2013

A Chase, a Crash and the Brevity of Life...

As I walked into our newsroom Wednesday morning, the sense of urgency was palpable.  Police scanners were blaring higher than normal.  Our Assignment Editor was barking instructions to a photographer to rush to a nearby hospital as quickly as possible, after an air rescue call was dispatched to a reported double shooting in SW Miami-Dade. 

I hardly had a chance to sit down and log into my computer before we heard that a vehicle fitting the description of the suspect's SUV was spotted not far from the shooting scene and, as police tried to approach it, the driver took off.  A chase ensued.  I remember looking at my co-worker and knowing and feeling the truth of what he was about to say, "This isn't going to end well."    

The black SUV Mercedes raced up Krome Avenue, a two-lane road at the far west edge of the county.  The road borders the Florida Everglades and, because of its remoteness, has been plagued with fatal accidents over the years. 

We started sending crews in the direction of the chase, not knowing where it would end but wanting to be as close as possible whenever it did.  Soon media helicopters were hovering over the scene and broadcasting live images of the chase on TV. 

The fleeing driver got off Krome Avenue on Okeechobee Road, nearly losing control as he maneuvered around the exit ramp and continued heading northwest into Broward County.  We re-routed a couple of more crews, who were already in the northern county, towards the chase.

Despite the tension, whirlwind of activity and frenzy around me, as everyone in the newsroom was mobilized, I was mesmerized watching the speeding SUV, which was traveling at speeds reported to be upwards of 100-miles-per-hour.  The suspect, Antonio Feliu, was driving erratically, flying by cars on the road and weaving in and out of traffic.  At one point, he went into the grassy median and plowed over a traffic sign to avoid other cars and then, out of nowhere, another black Mercedes came into its path.

It was a violent and horrifying crash that sent debris, mangled car parts, glass and smoke flying everywhere, as the two vehicles spun out of control and finally stopped in the median.

All I could muster to say was, "Oh, my goodness.  No!"  I was stunned.  It was as if time briefly stood still.  I felt as if the air had been sucked out of me, knowing well that there was no way the other motorist, who was broadsided on the driver's side, could have survived. 

And, just like that, in a split second, with no time to react and possibly without ever even seeing the charging vehicle heading towards her, the life of a woman came to a shocking and unexpected end.  An innocent driver was killed, being flung from her car in the cataclysmic collision.     

I must say that aside from watching the second plane hit the World Trade Center and the two towers collapse shortly afterwards in 2001, it was probably one of the ugliest images I have ever seen on live TV in my 25 years in the news industry.

Moreover, the abrupt manner the victim's life was quashed was unsettling.  Because, let's face it, as brutal as the death of Vivian Gallego, 51, and her daughter Anabel Benitez, 27, the victims shot in the original scene, were; at least they knew their killer.  There was a history, a soured relationship and a passionate devolution that led to the crime.  Their deaths, while just as underserving and disheartening, were not as ill-fated as that of the innocent driver, Maritza Medina, who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Maritza Medina...
I think, for many of us in the newsroom, it was a poignant reminder of just how fleeting and volatile our life really is.  In fact, another co-worker posted on her Facebook later that day, "Kiss your family and tell them how much you love them every day... You never know what tomorrow may bring."

Meanwhile, Feliu took his own life shortly after the crash. 

As I reflected on the day's event on my way home from work that night, I couldn't help but think of the lyrics of the James Taylor song, Fire and Rain, about the unexpected loss of a childhood friend, where he says, "Oh, I've seen fire and I've seen rain.  I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end.  I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.  But, I always thought that I'd see you again."

The thought of the many times I take the life of my wife and kids for granted was haunting.  Every morning, I help my wife by getting my son ready for school and everyone out the door to make it on time, sometimes without even taking a moment to kiss them goodbye or telling them how much I love them because everybody is rushing.  I confide, without much contemplation, that I will see them later in the day but is that a given?

Like she had done every other weekday, Medina had just dropped off her teenage daughter at school that morning.  The 47-year old homemaker, mother of two and wife of twenty five years, was heading home when she crossed into the intersection of Griffin and Okeechobee Roads, less then a half-mile away from her Pembroke Pines home.  She never made it.  Instead, she met her unexpected demise.

When asked if she told her mother that she loved her after being dropped off, her teary-eyed daughter said, "No.  I said 'goodbye, mom.'  You never really know when you are going to see her for the last time."

What a profound and honest answer.  You never really know.  One minute you're dropping off your daughter at school, like millions of parents across America, and the next minute a maniac plows into you and snuffs out your life in the blink of an eye.  And, with it are dashed, the many hopes and dreams of loved ones and friends, who suffer the loss.   

Medina's teenage daughter will not have her mom at her graduation next year or help her pick a prom dress, give her advice on boys, attend her college commencement ceremony or help plan her wedding one day.  Her older sister, who is already married, will never be able to seek her mom's counsel in raising her family and her children will never enjoy the blessing of growing up with their grandmother by their side.  Likewise, Medina's husband will never hold her hand again, get a chance to grow old together, celebrate anniversaries, retirement, family reunions, grandchildren or share in any of the quotidian moments and events in life that many of us, unfortunately, take for granted.  It's sad.    

Taylor puts it well in his song, "Been walking my mind to an easy time, my back turned towards the sun.  Lord knows when the cold wind blows, it'll turn your head around.  Well, there's hours of times on the telephone line to talk about things to come.  Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground."

In the end, no matter how much we worry, plan, save and attain, life can cease in an instant, as it did for Maritza Medina.  Therefore, it's not about our accomplishments, fame or fortune, it's about the legacy of memories and feelings we leave behind; especially to our family and friends, who will cherish the times and love we shared long after we are gone...

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