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Lives intersect at scene of deadly Tampa bike crash

TAMPA — At the intersection of Himes Avenue and Spruce Street that Friday, they waited in cars at a red light, as they had many mornings before work — the insurance adjustor, a city administrator and a city mechanic.

The mechanic, Eugene Rodriguez, had his 12-year-old son in a Yukon.

In the Mercedes behind him was Delilah Libby, the administrator. As she looked out her car window, a bicyclist caught her eye, a woman in a Fed-Ex uniform, waiting for a crossing signal. Libby saw her helmet, her vest. She saw her push the crossing button. Everything about the bicyclist exuded safety.

Had nothing more happened and Libby continued to work, she might never have remembered that woman. That's how intersections work; strangers share space with strangers, stopped together in a moving world until a light changes and the connection dissolves.

Unless something goes wrong. Then they're connected forever.

• • •

David Zinn felt the whoosh of a passing car rock his Hyundai. The insurance adjustor looked at the light. Solid red, he would remember. He shuddered, sensing what was next. He saw it happen, two cars on a collision path.

The crash of metal took Libby's attention off the bicyclist and onto the car spinning in her direction. She pushed back into her seat, bracing. Rodriguez told his son, "Hold on."

When all was still, hands fumbled for car doors. Feet stepped onto shattered glass.

Rodriguez told his son to find a safe place, then ran toward a totaled Lincoln Town Car police say had the green light. Inside was 76-year-old Lucille Franklin, just hit in the face with an airbag, and her screaming 8-year-old niece. Rodriguez reached in and pulled out the girl.

Zinn ran to check on the driver of the car that whooshed past him, a woman in a Nissan Murano. He would later tell police he saw Josefina Rodriguez, then 41, run the red light. He took photos with his Blackberry to document the scene.

But in those first moments, Libby's voice carried across the chaos: "Where's the bicyclist?"

• • •

Her name was Diane Vega. She was a 53-year-old mother of three with a baby granddaughter. She volunteered at St. Joseph's Hospital and loved the Tampa Bay Rays. She had finished an early morning shift with Fed-Ex and was headed to a part-time job at a department store as she stood on the curb, waiting for a signal.

The strangers on the street didn't know any of that. But they knew she had vanished.

Zinn looked underneath the Murano. He saw a bicycle tire and a shoe. Libby found her, slammed up against a house, in a crumbled heap of overgrown grass and rocks.

The woman's eyes were fixed open. She was broken, bleeding. Libby reached for her hand.

"Help is on the way," Libby told her. The woman didn't respond, but Libby heard her gasp for air. "Keep breathing."

Libby brushed glass from the woman's face.

And she prayed.

She held the woman's hand until paramedics arrived. It felt like only minutes passed before they covered her with a sheet.

Some days later, Libby saw a funeral notice in the newspaper and sent a card to Vega's family.

She wanted them to know this: Vega didn't die alone.

• • •

There was no arrest.

Josefina Rodriguez was accused of running a red light in a fatal crash, a civil traffic charge that carries a possible one year license suspension. She was not charged with a crime, Tampa police said, because she was not impaired and did not appear to be weaving or speeding.

But, in the name of justice, the three strangers who tried to help at that intersection on the morning of Oct. 1, 2010, went to traffic court Tuesday for a trial.

They were witnesses. They exchanged a few words and sat near each other, and when their turn came, they told what they saw. Zinn showed his photos. And after each was finished, they left the courtroom alone. They have not kept in touch since the crash, but they are aware of the connection they share.

"It's kind of comforting," Zinn said, "to know there are other people that know exactly firsthand what you experienced."

They each still drive the route to work. It takes them past the curb now marked by a memorial "ghost bike."

Sometimes, the light is green, and they pass it by. And sometimes, it's red, and they linger. They remember the woman who was there, then gone, and think about their own lives, and how quickly everything can change.

One day, Zinn passed the ghost bike and saw a woman kneeling and crying.

He did a U-turn. He met JoAnn Vega, Diane's sister, that morning and on Tuesday, he waited for her and the rest of her family outside of the courtroom after the hearing. She told him, "Thank you."

He wanted to know how it had gone. And she told him the judge had not yet made a decision, that she would at another hearing next month. He said he would try to come.

The judge released him of his duty. The law no longer needs him to be a witness.

Inside, he still feels like one.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Ride of Silence tonight

Tampa Bay area bicyclists will participate in a worldwide event today called "Ride of Silence," in memory of the many who have died. The event begins at 7 p.m. but

riders are encouraged to arrive early. To find a location near you, visit www.rideofsilence.org.

Lives intersect at scene of deadly Tampa bike crash 05/17/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 18, 2011 12:14pm]
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