Outside a Concord, N.H., theater where Dave Cruz had sung in the opera La Traviata, he tucked his helmet into his black motorcycle's backpack and slid onto its leather seat. It was July 1998. The sky was blue. A day too beautiful to ride with a helmet. Headed for a friend's house, he traveled east on Highway 393, riding in the inside lane at 40 mph. As he approached an intersection, a 19-year-old in the left turn lane abruptly pulled into traffic to turn right. Her white Subaru sedan crossed Cruz's path and they collided.
"I don't remember the impact," said Cruz, who was then 42. But he was told his body looked like a rag doll, thrown through the air before it hit the ground at the other side of the car.
Authorities arrested the Subaru's driver "for vehicular homicide," Cruz said.
"They thought I was dead."
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From a desk at the front of Tampa Harley-Davidson, Cruz, now 56, rents out motorcycles. He is the dealership's rental manager. Many mornings, he parks his own champagne bike outside the dealership, takes his helmet off and carries it in with him, after riding to work from his Port Richey home, 32 miles away.
Cruz has survived two crashes, the first in the '80s in Long Island, N.Y., after a woman driving a Ford Escort wagon ran a red light in front of him. He sprained his ankle. But after the 1998 crash, he had to relearn how to walk and how to ride. In the process, he discovered the good that could come from his crashes. Cruz developed a desire to help save lives by teaching courses in motorcycle safety and crash scene management — how to keep victims and passers-by protected amid the wreckage.
At the scene of Cruz's 1998 crash, "the first responders did everything they could to keep me alive." That he survived is to their credit, he said.
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Cruz woke up in the emergency room at Concord Hospital, to a doctor resetting his dislocated elbow.
"I heard two pops and I was out again," Cruz said.
Days later, he woke up again, in the ICU.
His arms and his left leg were wrapped in casts. A kneecap torn off in the crash had been reattached. An elbow, a shoulder and his wrists had been dislocated. He had contusions, blood in his urine and deep nerve tissue damage.
"The doctor said it looked like somebody took a belt sander to my leg," Cruz said. "He never saw so much paint inside a body. I must have impacted so hard it peeled the paint right off the car."
After 16 days in the ICU, Cruz moved to a regular room, where he stayed for two weeks before the hospital transferred him to a residential rehab facility.
"I had to learn how to use my arms again, how to use my left leg, how to talk," he said. "They told me I'd never walk again, unless I could get past the pain. It's a pain I wouldn't wish on anyone."
New to Concord, he had few local friends. His then-10-year-old daughter lived out of state, with his ex-wife. His mother was sick, so his parents, who lived in Florida, couldn't visit. "My roommate had more visitors in a day than I had the whole time I was there."
Depression set in. Nurses cried with him. But after a month, Cruz could walk with a platform crutch. He could go home.
And he had a goal: to ride again.
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Why would someone who was nearly killed on a motorcycle want to climb back on?
"It just becomes part of you," Cruz said.
Riding a motorcycle is sort of like riding a horse. If we lived in a world without cars or motorcycles, he said, "I'd be a cowboy."
It's a release to ride, he said. It's freedom. But he reads the news. He knows crashes are common in Pasco County.
According to the Florida Highway Patrol, 18 riders died in crashes in Pasco in 2011. In 2010, there were 13 fatal motorcycle crashes in Pasco, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
That year, Pasco was ranked ninth on the same agency's list of Florida counties with the most fatal motorcycle crashes. Pinellas and Hillsborough counties were in the top 10, too, at second and fourth, respectively.
Cruz is aware of the risk. But "there's a way to have fun and be safe." Getting trained teaches you how, he said.
Cruz, who is a certified emergency medical technician intermediate and a volunteer EMT for the West Central Florida Medical Reserve Corps, is certified to teach three motorcycle classes: the Motorcycle Safety Foundation Course, which is required for any rider who intends to obtain a motorcycle license in Florida; Harley's Riders Edge class, which covers motorcycle safety, riding, clothing and servicing; and an accident scene management course, designed to keep crash victims and passers-by safe at crash scenes.
What people learn in courses like the ones Cruz teaches may mean the difference between life and death, he said.
Motorcyclist Jon Graskewicz, 64, is also a two-time motorcycle crash survivor. He took Cruz's accident scene management class last fall. Graskewicz, who lives in New Port Richey and has been a rider for decades, said he already knew most of what Cruz taught. But "the premise of the class was very good," he said, and the skills the class is designed to teach are important for all riders.
He said the class covered how to control traffic at a crash scene, how to prepare the scene for medical personnel and what to do when a crash victim is bleeding heavily. Cruz calls the class "a bystander assistance program," and people who take it also learn when it's safe to remove a rider's full face helmet, how to do it correctly and how to stabilize a spine. The class covers basic first aid, he said, and how to keep yourself safe if you stop to help a rider who's been in a crash.
No matter the kind of course, Cruz said, there is a difference between riders who are professionally taught to ride safely and riders who aren't.
"I learned through the school of hard knocks how to ride," Graskewicz said. "And when my wife got her (motorcycle) license, her instructor, who was a Florida state trooper, told me he offered an advanced class. I'd been riding for 40 years. He said if I didn't learn something new in that class, I didn't have to pay for it."
He took the class, Graskewicz said. And when it ended, "I gladly wrote out my check."
Cruz can relate.
"I don't know how I stayed alive on a motorcycle for 30 some odd years" without proper instruction, he said. "I believe I may have been able to avoid both (crashes) with the skills I learned in the training."
Which is why Cruz continues to train other riders.
"My goal is to teach skills to keep them safe," he said. "And help them hopefully avoid what happened to me."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this story. Arleen Spenceley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6235.
Five things you should know
According to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, automobile drivers can take steps to safely share the road with motorcyclists.
1. Drive without distractions. Don't text or browse the Web behind the wheel.
2. Look for motorcycles. Motorcycles are smaller, and therefore less obvious, than other vehicles. If you aren't looking out for the riders around you, you probably won't see them.
3. Leave room for riders. Maintain a safe distance when following a motorcycle and don't change lanes too closely in front of one.
4. Use your signal. Always indicate when you're turning or changing lanes.
5. Keep your belongings in the car. Anything thrown out the window of a vehicle or off the back of a truck, including cigarette butts, could hit a rider, or become road debris, which could cause a deadly crash for a motorcyclist.