Cyclists worry about pace of crash investigation

Jeff Tilden recounts the events of Oct. 1, when a motorist ran over several bicyclists.
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Almost every evening, a group of bicyclists pedals out of town from one of Augusta's bicycle shops.

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The point of impact between a Dodge Durango and a bicycle is marked on Beech Island Avenue. The driver said he did not see a group of 15 cyclists until the last minute before the collision.  Special
Special
The point of impact between a Dodge Durango and a bicycle is marked on Beech Island Avenue. The driver said he did not see a group of 15 cyclists until the last minute before the collision.

Seasoned cyclists say the best rides are at the end of the week, when a stiff wind in a rider's face blows away five days of work-related stress.

"It's the ride I look forward to the most," Jeff Tilden said.

Nothing seemed to suggest that the Friday, Oct. 1, ride from Outspokin' Bicycles on Walton Way would be any different. The golden sunlight and crisp air prompted one of the cyclists, Matt Burke, to comment: "This is the perfect evening."

Within an hour Burke, 37, would be lying bloody and broken on the road and slipping into the coma where he remains today.

"Our vigil for Matt continues during this devastating nightmare. Our family is united, but we are heartbroken," his brother Paul Burke said in an e-mail.

Burke, a husband and father to a baby girl who will turn 8 months old Tuesday, is an Army major who spent six months in Iraq and was a surgeon at Fort Gordon.

He sustained the worst of the injuries when the group was struck by a Dodge Durango, but four weeks later other survivors are still recovering and one faces surgery for a shoulder injury. Many are still plagued by nightmares from the injuries they witnessed.

"It's certainly taken away my innocence and joy of riding," Laura Farmer said.

IN INTERVIEWS WITH The Augusta Chronicle , the cyclists also expressed frustration about what they perceive as slow progress by South Carolina Highway Patrol investigators.

Those investigators have said the driver, Daniel Johnson, told them he was distracted and didn't see the cyclists until the last minute. A message left for Johnson seeking comment was not returned.

The cyclists in the group question how Johnson could have failed to see 15 bicyclists on a long, straight stretch of Beech Island Avenue. Witnesses with more than 20 years of bicycling experience on the roads also question why they didn't hear the Durango until it started revving its engine at the last second.

"It was a very loud rumble," said German Chavarria, who works at Outspokin' Bicycles. "I've never heard anything like that in my life."

Collectively, the interviews paint a picture of a routine bicycle ride plunged into chaos within a split second.

"I was just paralyzed with this whole sight that was going on and the events that were happening," Emily Weigle said.

The ride Oct. 1 was more relaxed than usual: too slow for Burke and two other riders, who pedaled ahead of the group leaving Augusta.

Tilden, Lee Hartley and Burke pulled over at a Shell Station on the corner of Sand Bar Ferry Road and Beech Island Avenue to wait for the rest of the group. They chatted briefly with Burke about the new wheels on his bicycle, then rejoined the group as it passed by.

Burke sidled up to the left of Scott Moore in the rear of the group, and the two rode with their handlebars separated by only inches.

Typically, on a group ride, someone who hears an approaching vehicle will yell "car back" and the call will make its way up the line so bikers know to scoot over. No one seemed to hear the oncoming Durango until the last second, and no signal was given.

Judith Speck, who has 21 years' riding experience, recognized the sound of a revving engine just before the impact.

"This guy is going to buzz us," Speck said she thought.

Burke was talking about his job as a teenager working at an Acura dealership when Moore felt something slam into his lower back. Moore was thrown to the ground by the impact and tumbled along the shoulder. Burke was catapulted by the impact and sailed 40 feet over the heads of the other cyclists.

Tilden, who was at the head of the line, heard the loud pop of Burke's rear tire and turned his head in time to see Burke's water bottle exploding on impact. Burke was backlit by the sun as he flew through the air before bouncing on the road. He stirred briefly on the asphalt, gasping in pain, before he stopped moving. His damaged helmet and shoes were strewn across the road.

Cyclists were horrified by how badly he was injured.

"What really hit me was the amount of blood that just started to pour," Weigle said. "You know something like that is not going to be good."

The Durango stopped in a ditch in the opposite lane. Johnson got out of the truck and walked over to Burke.

Someone yelled "What were you doing!"

Johnson looked down at Burke and said something to the effect of "Are you all right?" according to Speck.

"Of course he's not OK," someone snapped.

Johnson said he was an EMT and wanted to help, but another cyclist told him he had already done enough damage. Two people called 911, grateful for the phone service in the rural area.

IN THE FOUR WEEKS that have passed since the wreck, Burke has shown no sign of improvement.

Speck, who was brushed by the Durango's mirror, couldn't sleep for days and suffered nightmares about an SUV mowing down people she knew. Other cyclists described similar nightmares; few have tried cycling again.

Moore, who was riding next to Burke, missed two weeks of work because of the deep bruising in his body. In an interview last week, Moore still moved with the slow and deliberate motion of someone in pain. Road rash on his forearm was still a bright pink oval of healing skin.

His concentration is scattershot. Moore said he has wondered hundreds of times about why he was spared the same trauma as Burke.

"It's scary," he said, then paused. "We're all scared."


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