It has been a dangerous year to ride a bike in New York City. More cyclists have died in 2019 than any other year since 2000. Overall traffic deaths have also increased compared to the same time last year—205 up from 192 according to the Department of Transportation. But cycling deaths have nearly tripled this year compared to last.
Since January 1st we have reported on the preliminary investigations, the ensuing cyclist ticketing blitzs, and the occasional criminal charges. Eighteen crashes took place in Brooklyn. Twelve involved a truck. All but one involved a driver. Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged the crisis in July, and committed to accelerating the installation of protected bike lanes in underserved neighborhoods like Brownsville and Corona. Since the mayor announced these efforts, ten more cyclists have been killed by drivers.
Amid all of this carnage, it can be hard to fathom that each statistic represents a life.
This is our effort to honor those lives. Over the course of the last month we’ve learned that those killed while riding a bike were immigrants from Japan, Bangladesh and Israel; native New Yorkers and recent arrivals from Virginia, Kentucky, and Massachusetts; children and teenagers who loved video games and soccer. Grandmothers who loved to exercise, and practice yoga. A sculptor, a triathlete, a civil servant, and a rising indie wrestling star. People who cycled for work, for environmental reasons, to save on subway fare, and just to clear their heads.
Throughout these conversations, we also heard what friends and family think it will take to stop these deaths. “Making biking safe here has to be for all types of people,” said Rose Kaplan-Bomberg, girlfriend of Em Samolewicz, a cyclist who was killed in July. “Not just people who can be very hardcore about keeping themselves safe in a particular way.”
Note: Our figure of 28 cyclist deaths includes Donald Roberts, who is excluded from the official DOT count because the driver is accused of deliberately killing Roberts with his vehicle and has been charged with murder. This story will be updated through January 1st, 2020. Some families declined to speak with us, others we were not able to contact. You can reach us at email@example.com.
Listen to Emma Whitford and Gwynne Hogan’s segment about this year’s cyclist fatalities on WNYC:
Hugo Alexander Sinto Garcia
Hugo Garcia was working as a delivery cyclist for Bagels By the Park in Carroll Gardens when a taxi driver doored him on Third Avenue on New Year’s Day, 2019. The impact sent the 26-year-old off of his e-bike and into traffic, where a second driver fatally struck him. “He was a great kid. A great worker,” the bagel shop owner, who identified himself as James, told Gothamist recently. “Everyone was very emotionally attached to him.” The driver who doored Hugo was eventually charged with a violation for unsafely opening a door, which carries a $138 fine.
Hector Ayala Jr.
Hector Ayala Jr.’s family declined a request for an interview with Gothamist. “Some of us are still trying to get over his death,” his brother Richard explained in a text message. The 41-year-old was struck by a van driver while biking across Linden Boulevard near his home at the Louis Hinton Pink Houses in East New York on January 4th. The crash took place shortly before 4:00 that morning.
Susan Moses turned heads. “She broke the hearts of many,” Susan’s daughter Lila Lieberman, 42, said. “When I was young and they would hit on her I would yell at them.” The 63-year-old grandmother of five was born Shoshana Lerner in 1955, in Israel. Her father was a Holocoust survivor. “He lost a lot and she was very much in touch with that part of her,” Lieberman told us. Susan met her husband during her mandatory army service in Israel. They had an army wedding, and he immigrated first, to Borough Park. Susan followed after less than a year, but struggled to feel completely at home in New York City. “She felt very lonely at times, not exactly sure where she would fit in,” Lieberman said. Months-long trips back to Israel didn’t feel quite right either. Susan and her husband got a divorce in 1992, and she eventually began dating a man named Jerry, who she lived with for 25 years up until the fatal crash on Kings Highway in Gravesend on January 26th. She also got her Certified Nursing Assistant license, and worked for several years at Coney Island Hospital. “She was in phenomenal health,” Lieberman said of her mother. “Her mode of transportation was the bike. She loved being out and exercising. It helped regroup her mind. It was just so helpful for her and she would do it in the dead of winter, even. As much as we were all worried.”
The day of the crash, Susan was returning from a manicure and pedicure, and a shopping trip to TJ Maxx. She succumbed to her injuries on February 2nd. The Uber driver who killed Susan was not charged, but his license was later revoked at a DMV hearing. “That was the only justice we had,” Lieberman said. Both Lieberman and Susan’s partner believe cyclists should be required to wear helmets, after Susan left hers at home. “There has to be some sort of re-education and bigger crackdown on people who are not driving safely,” Lieberman added. “That’s really the biggest issue.”
“What I gleaned from all of my conversations with people who knew Chaim was that he loved his bicycle and dedicated much of his time to charitable acts and social justice activities,” said Families for Safe Streets organizer Chana Widawski. “It sounds like his acts of kindness to all living beings were inspirational to many.”
Chaim, 72, was fatally struck while biking on 8th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen just before 6:00 a.m. on February 4th. Kenneth Jackson, who was behind the wheel of an Approved Oil truck, struck Chaim while turning left onto 45th Street, according to police. Jackson left the scene, and was arrested on March 26th and charged with violating the Right of Way Law, as well as failure to exercise due care. He was arraigned in late May. Chaim’s partner did not respond to an interview request from Gothamist.
Widawski, who lives in Hell’s Kitchen, noted that Chaim’s name was printed incorrectly in the press after his death, often with his first and last name reversed. Police originally identified him as Joseph Chiam. “His actual name, Chaim, means life. And it broke my heart to see him misnamed repeatedly in the press,” Widawski said. “I ride by Chaim’s white memorial bike nearly every night,” Widawski added. “Each time uttering his name out loud and thinking about a life so senselessly cut short.”
Shardy Nieves, a bike messenger from Harlem, remembers the snowy day in 2015 when he met Aurilla Lawrence. “I put out on social media, ‘Hey anyone want to meet up and shoot photos in the snow?’” Nieves, 39, recalled in a recent phone interview, while biking through Herald Square on a delivery. “And she was the only one who said, ‘Hey, I want to come out.’” Aurilla, a Paducah, Kentucky native who moved to New York City that year, seemed very shy at first. But she and Nieves hit it off, and started hanging out together regularly. Aurilla was a tough and skilled bike messenger, who always went out in inclement weather. On summer afternoons in the Flatiron District she and Nieves liked to get a Strawberita from 7-Eleven and pour it into a Big Gulp cup with ice to drink on the curb. “She came out of her shell in a big way, and it was awesome to see her actually evolve into the person she was right before she passed,” Nieves recalled. “She probably had, like, one tattoo and right before she passed she was really covered. She found her place in the world.”
Lawrence was 25 years old on February 28th, when she was run over and killed by the driver of a tanker truck on Broadway in Williamsburg, near the Williamsburg Bridge. The driver, who did not face charges, left the scene. Nieves stops by Aurilla’s ghost bike whenever he’s in Brooklyn to clean up the area and sweep away broken bottles. Since her death, his job as a bike messenger hasn’t felt the same. “I keep doing this job because I love it, but it’s definitely a different feeling,” he said. “The amount of cyclists that were killed this year, and you think how many people were actually prosecuted. It doesn’t make you feel great, you know?” Before Aurilla’s death, “I never really wondered if I’m going to come home at the end of the day.”
Robert “Tee” Spencer
Growing up in the Bronx in the 1970s, Tee Spencer loved to roller skate. “That was our main thing,” his lifelong friend Michael Vega, 56, recalled. The boys and their siblings also rode bikes, and worked after school at Vega’s father’s dress factory. Vega and his brother Angel remained very close with Tee into adulthood, thanks in part to their common interests: Harley Davidson motorcycles, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and “Fantasy,” the 1978 Earth, Wind & Fire song. “Regardless, anywhere that we heard it, we call each other and we’d say, ‘They’re playing our song,’ you know?” Vega recalled. Tee was a lifelong New Yorker. When he was fatally struck on March 14th, at the intersection of Borden Avenue and Second Avenue in Long Island City, he was working as a coordinator for the Department of Homeless Services, where he had a special interest in serving veterans. Vega and Angel are both retired Marines, and Tee’s brother Gabriel served in the army in Afghanistan. “He saw that some veterans were getting a raw deal when it came to housing and so forth,” Vega recalled. “So yeah, that was one of his passions.” Vega also described Tee as a helper by nature; a friend he could call at any time of day or night for counseling. He loved dogs, and ran a dog walking service on the side.
Since Tee’s death, Vega has been in contact with advocates, including Transportation Alternatives. He says he would like to see more bike lanes installed across the city, which he envisions as “just a blanket of security for all people.” Vega is also sticking to a plan that he and Tee had, to move to California for retirement and ride Harleys with Angel. Whenever he needs a reminder of that pledge, Vega listens to the last voicemail he received from Tee. It’s brief, and he played it for us recently: “That’s what I’m talking about my brother! We will live looooong lives!”
Pedro Tepozteco of Sunset Park was fatally struck by the driver of a Hino box truck at 5:30 p.m. on April 17th, on 47th Street near 17th Avenue in Borough Park. An initial police report claimed that Pedro “fell into the side of the truck,” a narrative advocates condemned as victim blaming. Gothamist was not able to reach friends or family of Pedro. However, the Daily News spoke to one neighbor this spring who said the 26-year-old was originally from Mexico, and a hardworking delivery cyclist for a restaurant.
Victor Ang was 74 years old when he died, more than a month after a UPS driver struck him off of his Citi Bike on 11th Avenue in Manhattan. Attempts by Gothamist to contact Ang’s widow, Sandy, and daughter, Charlene, were unsuccessful. “He was a clever man, a MacGyver, nothing was insurmountable,” Ang’s obituary states. “He lit up every room he was in, and was known for his good sense of humor, his jokes, and laughter.” Born in Manila, Philippines, Victor was living in Leonia, New Jersey when the crash occurred, police records show. He was a real estate agent, according to the obituary, as well as a “renowned photographer.”
Kenichi “Ken” Nakagawa
It was already Mother’s Day in Japan when a driver struck Ken Nakagawa as he biked on Dean Street near his Bedford-Stuyvesant home on May 11th, the eve of his twenty-third birthday. “What a Mother’s Day present I had,” Ken’s mother, Naoko Nakagawa, 53, told Gothamist via email from Tokyo. She had not seen her son, who sustained a fatal head injury, for four years. Born in Indonesia and raised in Tokyo, Ken moved to Batavia, New York in 2015 to study at Genesee Community College. He moved to Manhattan to attend art school two years later. Nakagawa was “gentle and kind,” according to his mother. “What he did not like was to compete, and [he was] not interested in winning.”
Ken fell in love with bikes at age 13, when he learned to fix them in Boy Scouts. Many of his friends rode bikes, and he planned ambitious cycling trips, including a 350-mile ride between Tokyo and Osaka. He generally preferred bike commuting to taking the train. “In Japan, we celebrate being an adult at the age of 20,” Ken’s mother wrote. “His grandparents gave him money for him to customize his own bike, which cost $2,000. The bike he was riding at the time of the accident.” Ken rekindled relationships with both his sister and his birth father shortly before he died, according to Nakagawa. Asked how similar tragedies might be prevented in the future, Nakagawa bemoaned that her son ran a red light, and was not wearing a helmet when he was hit. “I suppose many cyclists ignore a traffic light, including my son. Providing thorough instruction might help,” she said. “He hit his head and died of brain death. It could have been different if he wore [a] helmet.”
Rob Sommer grew up in Marine Park with an acute understanding of loss. His mother Ellen died of lung cancer when he was just 13 years old. But Rob never turned inward with his grief, according to his step-aunt Myrna Roman, 65. Instead he was always warm and approachable. When Roman’s nephew’s wife got diagnosed with lung cancer too, Rob took her two young children under his wing, helping babysit the toddlers when she was in the hospital. The 29-year-old had a knack for befriending people wherever he went, old and young. Some friends knew him as Robert, others Rob, and even Bobby Guns, for his biceps.
At the wake following his fatal crash on May 12th, Roman spoke to a middle aged man she’d never seen before. “He says, ‘Oh, Rob used to come around the corner and we used to have coffee together,’” she recalled. “He knew what I call the ‘lonely souls.’” A group of young boys came to the wake who knew Rob from Jimmy’s Famous Heros in Sheepshead Bay, where he worked and made them sandwiches. Always, Roman said, Rob “gave love as much as he craved it.”
One rainy night soon after Rob was killed, his high school friends created an impromptu memorial garden near the crash site on Avenue U. After the funeral flowers died, they planted new ones. Recently, a Christmas tree appeared. Rob was living in an apartment near Jimmy’s Famous when he died, not far from his father, a retired NYPD detective. He rode his bike everywhere. “That’s all he did,” Roman said. “He was a cyclist. He did not have a car.” Roman herself is not a driver either, and said she’s distraught about the distracted driving she observes in Gravesend and Marine Park. “I’m a walker. And everybody is driving,” she said. “They are stepping on the gas and they are looking at cell phones. I see it daily.”
Sixteen-year-old Yisroel Schwartz was biking home from yeshiva for dinner on May 15th when police say he struck the open door of a parked car on 17th Avenue in Borough Park. The impact knocked him off of his bicycle, and another driver fatally struck him. An NYPD spokesperson could not locate any record showing that the motorist received a citation for opening their door onto Yisroel.
When he died, the tenth grader was in his second year at Yeshiva Novominsk, a school that neighbor Alex Rappaport, 41, described as particularly friendly to bikers. “They had bicycle racks in front of their buildings before Bloomberg,” he told us. Yisroel was quiet and studious, according to Rabbi Lipa Brennen, the executive director of the yeshiva. Two of his brothers attended the same school. “He was very analytical. And so the study of the Talmud was very enticing for him and very challenging for him,” Brennen told Gothamist. “And he was able to master the subject matter.”
Yisroel’s death was shocking for his classmates, as well as the broader Chasidic Jewish community of Borough Park. The school brought in counselors, and the funeral drew mourners from across the tri-state area. In the months since, Yisroel’s classmates have decided to honor him with additional study sessions. “As a sign of respect for him they have made extra study sessions throughout the whole year,” Brennen said. “For the first anniversary of his passing, they’re doing extra studies in his memory.” In the coming year, Brennen expects many of his students will keep biking to and from school. “The city buses in Borough Park don’t go all over the place, and it takes time as well,” he said. “Especially in the morning with the yeshiva buses. So it’s a much easier and faster way to come, with a bicycle.”
Mohammed Abdullah had been granted asylum in the United States and was preparing to apply for a green card when a driver killed him on Avenue D in East New York on the night of June 9th. Treasure Liggins, 22, was arrested the next day, and charged with manslaughter and driving while intoxicated, among other charges. At the time, 29-year-old Mohammed was living with four roommates, all Bangladeshi immigrants like himself, in a small apartment in East New York. “He worked for Uber food delivery and GrubHub,” Mohammed’s friend and landlord Mostafa Hossain said. “I was really upset about it because he was always a happy guy and friendly. He would always make a lot of jokes when we’d meet together.”
Mohammed was an honest and careful person, according to his friends, and would sometimes ride on the sidewalk to avoid large cars. As Hossain recalled, “Whenever he goes outside he’s very careful… he always tried to be cool with people.” Mohammed immigrated to the United States across the Mexican border in 2017 with his friend and future roommate, 35-year-old Shohel Vhy. The men spent two months in a detention center near the border, according to Vhy. In New York, they worked for delivery apps in order to send money home to their families, and dreamed of eventually saving enough to start their own business. “We were thinking maybe a restaurant,” Vhy said. Another former roommate, 29-year-old Shahad Shahad, delivers anywhere from 30 to 70 hours per week. He said that the work is dangerous, especially when it’s raining. “This is a dangerous job all the time,” Shahad said. “I’m looking for a different job right now. When I get a new job, I’ll quit this job.”
What Cheylene Tattersall, 34, remembers most vividly about Robyn Hightman is their enthusiasm. “I remember being 20 and trying to act cool, act older, not be too excited about things,” Robyn’s close friend recalled. “And Robyn was just totally excited about everything.” Robyn, who used they/them pronouns, was still living in Richmond, Virginia, when they were killed during their first Manhattan bike delivery shift on June 24th. (The driver, who left the scene and then returned, ultimately received five equipment violations.) In August, Robyn was planning to move permanently to New York City, where they’d found a community with bike delivery riders and track racers at Kissena Velodrome in Flushing. Robyn’s father, Jay Hightman, 57, said he can relate.
“The fact of the matter is I was no longer with my family my senior year of high school either,” he told us. “For me biking became my means of transportation. It became my ability to find peace.” Robyn showed so much natural talent on the track that Tattersall thinks they could have made it to the Olympics. They also played the flute and piccolo starting in elementary school, and dreamed of eventually getting a job at a Manhattan nonprofit for disadvantaged youth called the Time In Children’s Art Initiative. “Robyn wanted to help kids that were in the same situation as them,” Tattersall said. “They didn’t want to [work] on a bike forever.”
Robyn’s father recently turned his old racing bike into a ghost bike, and attached it to the top of his minivan. Robyn’s name is painted on the top tube, “ride in peace” and “rest in power” on the downtube. “It’s been a good opportunity for people to come up and say, ‘Why?’ And to share [their] story but also to talk about cyclist safety,” he said.
Hightman and his wife Lindsay Hawn, who live in Charlottesville, are also among the co-founding members of the Richmond chapter of Families for Safe Streets. Together they are supporting state legislation to mandate hands-free cell phone use while driving. In New York, Tattersall and her friends recently got tattoos of the key to Robyn’s Manhattan ghost bike. In order to prevent another tragedy, Tattersall believes the city has to think beyond bike lanes, which don’t serve all delivery routes and are frequently obstructed. She’d like to see a dash cam requirement for all commercial vehicles, and harsher penalties for drivers who kill.
In September, Tattersall was part of a memorial ride that reversed Robyn’s last 350 mile ride from New York City to Richmond. “Robyn did it in three days,” she said. “And we did it in five.”
Ernest “Andre” Eskew
Andre Eskew loved bicycles. His cousin Yolanda Ruiz, 57, remembers him as a kid, riding a unicycle up and down the hallways of his home in Brownsville, Brooklyn. “My mom remembered that he fell off it one time and broke his two front teeth,” Ruiz recalled. “But he continued to ride. He still loved riding it.” As an adult, biking was Andre’s preferred mode of transportation, especially after a car crash a few years ago left him wary of driving. According to Ruiz, “He had an accident several years before he passed, a car accident, and he was afraid to drive the car again. So he would take the bicycle and go to his doctor’s appointments and go to tend to his other errands.”
Andre loved R&B music, and had a beautiful singing voice. In 1995, amNew York reported, he sang at the Apollo Theater for an “amateur night” event. Ruiz and Andre grew up together — their mothers were twin sisters — and she said that Andre was always happy and friendly to strangers. “I’ve never seen him angry or upset or mean towards another person,” she said. “He was a very jovial, very happy-go-lucky person.” He also stood out because of his personal style. Specifically, an intricately-patterned tattoo that covered his head, with an inked-in hairline.
The past year has been difficult for Andre’s family. Months before Andre was killed while biking on Sutter Avenue, his mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. She died shortly after the diagnosis. “That was another great loss,” Ruiz said. Ruiz currently lives in Houston, Texas, where she drives buses for the transportation authority. She has noticed new protected bike lanes cropping up around the city. Some have even replaced a lane of car traffic — part of a “road diet” initiative. “They’re very obvious that this is a bike lane,” she said. “And it breaks my heart because I think that could have saved my cousin.”
Devra Freelander was an accomplished visual artist. At the age of 28, she’d already had two major public installations in New York City: “Fluorescent Sunrise” at Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City and, this past March, “Eventual Artifact” in Times Square in collaboration with artist Gracelee Lawrence.
“The potential of what she could have done, all of the new media and areas she was experimenting with, we’ll just never see, we’ll never know, and that’s just devastatingly sad,” said her father, Rabbi Daniel Freelander. Devra’s art was informed by the environment, and an acute awareness of the climate crisis. So was her decision to commute by bike, between her Bushwick apartment and her studio. Devra’s first solo art show opened posthumously this October at CIRCA Gallery in Minneapolis, and features video of her embracing an iceberg. She was preparing for the show when a cement truck driver struck her on Bushwick Avenue on July 1st, and friends from her artist collective Material Girls traveled to Minneapolis to install the show on her behalf.
Freelander described his daughter as an extrovert with people skills, who was very comfortable in her skin. Originally from New Jersey, she was named after her late uncle, David Freelander, an artist who died of AIDS two years before she was born. Devra grew up in the public eye—her mother Rabbi Elyse Frishman is a pioneer congregational rabbi and liturgist—and took to it. “She was modest, but very ambitious and proud of her work,” Freelander said. She was also a talented alto singer, and recorded an unreleased album shortly before her death. In the months since her passing, Devra’s friends have spent time in her studio, organizing and cataloguing her work. Her parents have also launched a scholarship for emerging artists at Socrates Sculpture Park, which they hope will support one or two artists annually. “There’s no anger on our part,” Freelander said. “Just enormous, devastating sadness.”
Alex “Damian” Cordero
“He was just getting started,” Alex Cordero’s aunt, Clara Cordero, 56, told Gothamist. “Only two years in.” Cordero’s nephew was fifteen years old when he moved to Staten Island from the Dominican Republic to live with his father and stepmother. He was seventeen when a tow truck driver fatally struck him on Castleton Avenue on July 23rd. Alex — his family and close friends called him Damian — was shy and reserved, according to his aunt. “He was quiet,” she said. “He wasn’t like the center of attention or anything like that. He was just very approachable. His demeanor was just very, very humble.” Alex’s adoptive mother, Xiomara Caba, raised him from the age of one until he moved to the U.S. “He was very respectful to his seniors as well as other children,” she wrote in a message to Gothamist. “Age did not matter to him.”
Cordero stressed the challenges Alex faced moving to a new country and learning a new language, all during high school. “It was kind of hard, you know, getting to know the language, being in ESL, trying to fit in,” she said. Still, he had good relationships with his teachers at Curtis High School in St. George, some of whom came to Alex’s wake in Brooklyn. That week, Alex’s family had tickets to fly to the Dominican Republic for a month-long vacation. Alex was going to see both his birth mother and adoptive mother. Now it would serve as his burial trip. “He ended up going, but of course not the way they were expecting,” Cordero said. Alex was not a regular bike rider, and did not have a bike of his own. He occasionally borrowed his uncle’s bike, which he was riding the day he died. Cordero noted the “horrendous” traffic on Staten Island. “It’s just so hard, you know, to walk around,” she said. “It’s not like Brooklyn, where you take the train, or in Manhattan. We don’t have so much access to public transportation.”
Liem Nhan was biking on McGuinness Boulevard in Greenpoint shortly before 4:00 p.m. on July 23rd — hours after Alex Cordero was fatally struck — when a box truck driver fatally hit him. Both cyclist and driver were headed south, according to an initial police report. Gothamist was not able to contact friends or family of Liem, but obtained his official Taxi and Limousine Commission photo. According to the Daily News, Liem, a Vietnamese immigrant, was killed on his first day working as a food-delivery cyclist. Prior to that he had been registered with the TLC since at least 1990, a spokesperson said. The 58-year-old was living in Flushing at the time of his death.
“She was an artist, and that was her number one motivation above everything else,” said Rose Kaplan-Bomberg, 32, Em’s girlfriend and roommate when she was fatally struck while trying to avoid an open car door on Third Avenue in Sunset Park. (That driver was ultimately ticketed for opening his door unsafely; the driver who fatally struck Em was not charged.) Em’s art, Kaplan-Bomberg recalled, “felt kind of like a puzzle, like a very beautiful puzzle that you would never have all of the answers to, and she felt like that as a person as well.” At 31, Em was a multimedia artist and poet. Her work has appeared in two posthumous shows, including a show in Crown Heights that ran from early August to early September.
Originally from Western Massachusetts, Em moved to New York City in 2015 after getting her visual arts MFA at Rutgers University. She loved yoga, and was about to start a teacher training program at the Brooklyn studio Abhaya Yoga when she died. Now her old employer, the nonprofit Third Root, is preparing to launch a scholarship program with Abhaya Yoga in Em’s honor for trans women who want to become instructors. Kaplan-Bomberg still lives in the Sunset Park apartment that she and Em shared, and still rides her bike regularly.
“She was always super broke and didn’t have money to take the train everywhere,” Kaplan-Bomberg said of Em. “She found the train very draining as someone who is very introverted.” Sunset Park has a new protected bike lane on Fourth Avenue, but Kaplan-Bomberg said more bike lanes are needed in the neighborhood, particularly on Third Avenue, where Em and two other cyclists were killed this year. The city should prioritize protected lanes, which Kaplan-Bomberg thinks are more suited to casual and novice cyclists. “Making biking safe here has to be for all types of people,” she said. “Not just people who can be very hard core about keeping themselves safe in a particular way.”
At a memorial ride for 52-year-old Jose Alzorriz on August 25th, Amanda Hanna-McLeer, his partner Irene’s daughter, shared a remembrance of the enthusiastic New Yorker of 25 years who liked to lead unofficial architecture tours around Brooklyn for friends and strangers. She recently shared the text of that remembrance with Gothamist. “He took naps or ‘siestas’ in Greenwood Cemetery and scoffed at anyone who found it morbid to lie under those beautiful trees,” Hanna-McLeer, 26, wrote. “He swam in Sunset Park’s public pool.” A Basque hailing from Bilbao, Jose was also a triathlete and an avid cyclist for whom safety was paramount. According to Hanna-McLeer, many of his friends were injured while biking. “Over the years he’s quietly paid for their medical bills and had their bikes repaired,” she wrote. Jose was killed on August 11th, while biking home from his weekly two-mile swim at Coney Island. An 18-year-old driver named Mirza Baig — since charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, among other charges — collided with an SUV that in turn struck Jose.
Less than a month after Jose’s death, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans for safety upgrades in the area, including new painted bike lanes near Coney Island Avenue. But Hanna-McLeer and other advocates are demanding a protected bike lane on the avenue itself because, as she put it, “the only way forward in preventing traffic casualties is a one hundred percent protected and connected bike path.” Hanna-McLeer is not a stranger to violence on the streets. In 1994, her grandmother and aunt were both killed by a hit-and-run driver in Bay Ridge. “Some would say tragedy striking my family twice is bad luck,” she wrote in her remarks for Jose. “I say it’s a systemic, cultural problem.”
Charles Cheeseboro was the only cyclist to die this year whose crash did not involve a vehicle. The 43-year-old Harlem resident was riding an e-bike on East Drive along Central Park on the afternoon of August 26th when he collided with a pedestrian crossing at 74th Street, according to police. He sustained head trauma and succumbed to his injuries two days later. Charles’s sister Tara Cheeseboro declined to speak to Gothamist about her brother, after what she described as negative reporting in the aftermath of his death.
Shortly before 6:00 a.m. on September 2nd, police say 47-year-old Donald Roberts and a driver, 41-year-old Korey Johnson, got into an argument. Donald had allegedly tried to break into Johnson’s Jeep, which was parked on Marcus Garvey Boulevard in Bed-Stuy. He then allegedly struck Johnson’s girlfriend in the arm with a screwdriver. When Donald tried to bike away, Johnson got into his car and drove after him the wrong way on Marcus Garvey, fatally striking Donald. Johnson was charged the next day with murder and manslaughter. Donald’s death is not included in the Department of Transportation’s total for 2019 traffic deaths, because it is a murder case. Donald’s mother, Evelyn Roberts, declined to speak to Gothamist about her son at her Bed-Stuy home this month.
Abul Bashar, 62, was working as a delivery cyclist for Kanan Indian Restaurant in Gowanus when a garbage truck driver fatally struck him while he was on his e-bike on the night of September 8th. (Streetsblog reports that the driver was ultimately ticketed for failure to yield.) Abul sustained head trauma, and succumbed to his injuries ten days later. “He was one of the most friendliest guys. Whenever you asked him for something he never hesitated,” said Rick Tang, a Kanan staffer. “It’s very sad for us, all of us.” Abul, who lived in the Bronx, had started working full-time for Kanan in June, according to his former manager. Attempts to reach his wife and son were not successful. According to the Daily News, Bashar and his family immigrated to the U.S. from Bangladesh.
Mario Valenzuela wanted to be a soccer player when he grew up. At 14, the sport was his favorite after-school activity. The eighth grader from Astoria had lots of energy, his mother Martha Valenzuela, 47, said. Movies were not his idea of fun. “He didn’t want to be sitting for so long,” she explained. A truck driver fatally struck Mario on Borden Avenue on September 21st, and his family says they did not hear from city officials after the crash. “We haven’t received any phone call or message from the city. Nothing at all,” Valenzuela said. Mario was born and raised in Queens, and spoke Spanish and English at home, where his chores included cleaning his room and washing dishes. He had two older sisters in their 20s, and liked to listen to rap music. He loved McDonald’s, but at home his favorite foods were quesadillas, Mexican rice with tomato sauce, and steak, but “with no grease,” Valenzuela noted.
Mario had lots of friends, and they liked to meet up to ride their bikes to Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City. They called it Pepsi Cola Park, after the park’s signature sign. Mario was with three other friends on bicycles when he was killed, according to his mother. Since that day, some of his friends have stopped riding their bikes at all. Nearby Vernon Boulevard has bike lanes, but Borden Avenue does not (though neighbors and local City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer have called for them this year). “That’s what kids want to do, right? Go play at the park,” Valenzuela said. “Many of the friends are not using the bikes. They freak out, you know? They are scared. They are afraid something will happen to them, too. And it’s not good.”
On September 27, the day she died, 66-year-old Ada Martinez had a typical early-fall date with her husband Rodolfo of 47 years. The couple lived in Far Rockaway, and spent most summer weekend nights dancing to live music at Low Tide and Caracas, the arepa bar. That evening they rode their bikes to a favorite spot to watch the sunset, at the NYC Ferry terminal. “My dad had brought fruit and crackers and a can of ginger ale, her favorite,” Ada’s daughter Natasha Martinez, 44, says. “They sat there waving to the people boarding the ferry. Once the sun had set they got on their bicycles and headed home.”
An ambulette driver fatally struck Ada at the intersection of Beach 94th Street and the Rockaway Freeway, after her husband had safely cleared the intersection. Ada was riding in a bike lane when she died, but the lane crosses traffic and her daughter says there should have been a stop sign or light at the intersection for cyclists as further protection. “If they do not address it, unfortunately enough there’s going to be another incident there. And that’s what’s scary to me,” Martinez said.
Ada was born in Puerto Rico and moved to New York City as a child. She and Rodolfo had three children, who they raised in Midwood and Richmond Hill. For thirty years they also ran a hardware store in Bed-Stuy called Safeway Locksmith, where Ada was “Miss Ada” or “the key lady” to her customers. She and her husband sold art supplies to students at nearby Pratt University, and taught their children how to cut keys. When a neighbor’s home caught fire, Martinez remembers them bringing over recovery supplies: candles, flashlights and blankets. When she died, Ada had seven grandchildren, including Martinez’s five-year-old twins. She was petite and fit, and took three yoga classes a week on the beach. She and Rodolfo did not have a car, and loved to ride the ferry to Manhattan.
Rodolfo, who had just put in for retirement when Ada died, has since moved in with his daughter in an apartment over the hardware store. The shop itself is closed until further notice. “I haven’t been able to actually face the world yet,” Rodolfo told Gothamist. “I haven’t been able to go back to the apartment where we lived.”
At just 10 years old, Dalerjon Shahobiddinov was the youngest person to be killed in 2019 while riding a bicycle. Earlier this year, we reported that he loved to ride his bike and play video games. Dalerjon was struck by the driver of a Ford SUV on October 5, as he biked a short stretch of Foster Avenue between Abu Bakr El Seddique Mosque and his Kensington apartment. Driver Victor Mejia, 29, was charged with failure to yield, failure to exercise due care, and operating without a license. On the day of the crash, Mayor de Blasio tweeted that the Department of Transportation was clearing parking spaces from the intersection to improve visibility and “assessing the need for speed humps.” Rizwan Ali, who taught Dalerjon at the mosque, spoke to Gothamist/WNYC shortly after the crash, and noted how many local children play on the sidewalks in the neighborhood. “The cars are coming down pretty fast and the kids are kids, you can tell them to stop today, but they’ll start tomorrow again,” Ali said. “So, we can’t stop them but we have to do something so they can be safe in front of their own house.”
At the age of 65, Bogdan Darmetko worked as a handyman at a special needs school in Long Island and loved to train on his road bike. His friend and neighbor in Corona, Josef Bednarski, 57, said that Bogdan sent him frequent WhatsApp messages summarizing his rides. “He constantly sent me the map, the speed, the calories, that was his passion,” Bednarski recalled. “He had a bike in his home, so when it was winter he was on the bike, indoors.” Bogdan also kept up with the major international cycling tours, like the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia. He tended a vegetable garden at home and another at the school where he worked. Any spare bread from the school cafeteria he collected and fed to the birds. His apartment was full of flowers. Bogdan loved downhill skiing, and went on ski trips with Bednarski and his wife Joanna, in Colorado and Chamonix in France. He had a son, and had been living in Corona for more than 15 years when an SUV driver fatally struck him on Cross Bay Boulevard in Broad Channel on October 13th.
Bogdan was born in Poland, and first met Bednarski’s wife in the late 1980s, when the two of them were taking English lessons in Brooklyn. The friends ultimately bought apartments in the same building, and shared house keys. “He was a very good guy. Anything you ask him, he always help you out,” Bednarski said of Bogdan. “I’m going to miss him because I thought we were going to do more biking and skiing together. His picture is all over. I talk to him every night.” Bednarski travels frequently in Europe for his job as a jeweler, and said that New York is behind European cities like Copenhagen when it comes to bike safety. “Many people tell me that New York is a nice city, but not the city for the bikers,” he said.
At 87, Yevgeny Meskin was the oldest person to be killed while riding a bicycle this year. A minivan driver struck him at the intersection of Avenue P and the Coney Island Avenue service road on the morning of October 30th, and he sustained severe head trauma. The crash occurred less than a block from his home in Midwood. Attempts to reach Yevgeny’s son, Mikhail Meskin, were not successful.
Matt Travis—Matty to his friends and family, “Murder by Kicks” in the ring—was a rising star in the tri-state indie wrestling scene when he was struck and killed by a van driver making an illegal left turn in Harlem on the night of November 9th. The driver fled the scene and no arrests have been made. Last month we reported that Matt trained with a Ridgewood-based wrestling company called House of Glory, always biking between Harlem and Queens to train. In his spare time, he liked to teach wrestling moves to kids who couldn’t afford lessons. Matt competed for various wrestling companies, known as “promotions,” but his mom Yolanda Nieves, 44, said he was devoted to HOG. “He wanted to expand with them, because they showed him the ropes,” she told us. Puerto Rican on his mother’s side and Ecuadorian on his father’s, Matt was introduced to wrestling as a kid, by his maternal grandmother. “Since he was born my mom was a very big fan of wrestling,” Nieves said. “She would take me to Madison Square Garden to see Hulk Hogan, and she would take Matt when she was babysitting for me. That’s all he ever talked about and dreamed about.”
At 25, Matt made all of his career decisions with his family in mind. Nieves, who has knee and back issues, also cares for Matt’s three little brothers, ages 20, 14 and five. “I stopped working about seven years ago, and he would take care of me and the boys,” she said. “He was the father figure in the house.” Since Matt’s death, Nieves said the whole family has sought therapy and is struggling financially. Nieves is also frustrated with the law enforcement response to the crash. In particular, the lack of updates from a detective assigned to her son’s case. “The last thing I told the detective was, you know, ‘happy holidays to you,’” she said. “But my holidays are never going to be happy. I need an update.”
Hours after this story was published, the NYPD announced that they had arrested 48-year-old Luc Vu, of Elmwood Park, New Jersey, in connection with Matt’s death. Vu is charged with reckless driving, failure to yield to a cyclist, failure to obey a traffic signal, failure to exercise due care, and driving to the left of a pavement marking.
Additional reporting by Gwynne Hogan.