Tuesday, January 19, 2010

When the story becomes personal

Miami Herald staff writer Andres Viglucci

Much of the Miami Herald's staff is focused on coverage the Haiti earthquake; a story that's dominated the paper's front page since last Wednesday.

But today, the paper relinquished part of the front page to staff writer Andres Viglucci who's covering another story that's creating almost as much buzz locally as the quake: the story of the horrific hit-and-run death Sunday of a bicyclist on Bear Cut bridge on Key Biscayne.

TV stations are also breaking news on the story while local blogs tap into the rage surrounding the story.

Tim Elfrink at Miami New Times - tipped off by New Times readers - today documented the awful driving record of Carlos Bertonatti, the man accused of plowing into the bicyclist.

But there's probably no journalist in South Florida more qualified than Viglucci to cover this story.

For him, the story couldn't be more personal.

On Sept. 8, 1988, Viglucci, while riding a brand-new bicycle, was struck by a car at the top of the bay bridge that connects Miami to Key Biscayne.

The accident almost killed him.

In 1992, almost four years after the accident, Viglucci wrote about the moments after he was hit:
I opened my eyes where I lay, curled on my flank on the roadside, as if waking in bed from a good, sound sleep. Bits of gravel dug into my cheek.

Lifting my head, I gazed up past my prone feet into a bright cloud-specked sky. My body felt small and awful. I was queasy and confused, as though someone had punched me in the stomach and knocked me over the head.

Torpidly, my dulled brain struggled to decipher my surroundings. Everything around me seemed to lie a great distance away.

Hazily I recognized the place. I was supine on the Rickenbacker Causeway, near the crest of the tall bay bridge that connects Miami to Virginia Key. My feet were pointed uphill, my head downhill. Before me was a concrete retaining wall, and, at my back, the sound of morning traffic rushing by on the way to the bridge's summit.

I felt a stab of fear in my chest, and a jumble of thoughts raced across my mind. The road underneath me was a familiar one. It was the route I took several times a week when I rode my bicycle to Key Biscayne from Coconut Grove. But I didn't know how I'd come to be lying on the pavement. Until that moment only dimly aware of my numbed body, I now realized I was clad in cycling shorts, gloves and helmet. Yet I had no memory of rising from bed, dressing, climbing in the saddle or pedaling. Still, I knew, I must have. My mind veered illogically: Wasn't I now asleep in bed? How did I get from there to here?
Viglucci spent three months in the hospital recovering. It was a year before he could return to work full-time. And another two years before before he could summon the courage to again mount a bicycle.
With trepidation, I mounted a new custom bike, built partly with components salvaged from the old one, and took it for an easy spin on a quiet neighborhood street. At first and during subsequent rides I was wracked by nerves, my heart jumping at the sound of car horns, but I was determined to get back in shape. It took almost as long to build back my courage as it took to build back my legs, but eventually I overcame my nerves sufficiently to return to my old route.
This past Sunday, Viglucci was riding his bike on Key Biscayne when he happened upon scene on Bear Cut bridge about an hour after the incident.

Today, Viglucci told me by phone that police had re-routed traffic to the east side of the bridge. As he passed he could see blood on the retaining wall and sensed immediately that a bicyclist had been hit.

It was only after Viglucci made it into Key Biscayne that he was he able to connect the pieces of what he had seen.
Hours after the 8 a.m. incident, the crumpled remains of the blue Cannondale bike lay on the grass in front of the village Winn-Dixie, surrounded by yellow crime-scene tape and guarded by an officer. A few blocks away, the badly damaged, Wolfsburg-edition Jetta still sat on Grapetree, also guarded by a patrol car.
Viglucci told me he's working on another story on the hit-and-run for Wednesday's paper.

Before we hung up, I asked him if there are any lingering physical effects of his brush with death over 20 years ago. He told me that he has a diminished lung capacity and the corneas of his eyes are scarred.

He didn't mention nightmares.

I didn't think I had to ask.


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