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Thursday, April 2, 2020

Community unites to honor traffic accident victims

Deputy Lonnie Bauman tells a heartbreaking story of a little boy who lost the use of his legs in a car accident on Thursday, Nov. 14. // Photo by Garrett Rahn

By Garrett Rahn

In Whatcom County in 2018, 13 people died in traffic accidents.

Bellingham City Council Member Gene Knutson shared this statistic in his opening speech at the World Day of Remembrance (WDR) gathering at city hall on Thursday, Nov. 14.

WDR brings together many millions around the world to remember community members who died in car crashes, and to recognize the tremendously difficult jobs of our first responders, Knutson said.

World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims began in Europe in 1995, but now takes place on the third Sunday of November as a global event, according to the official website.

Thursday marks the third year Bellingham has taken part in WDR.

The event began with members of the community sharing personal stories of their experiences with loss. Lt. Claudia Murphy of the Bellingham Police Department, Deputy Lonnie Bauman and Patrol Lt. Rodger Funk of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, and Division Chief Scott Ryckman of the Bellingham Fire Department spoke of the travesties they have witnessed in the line of duty.

“Every loss is personal to us whether we knew the person or not,” Murphy said.

Murphy spoke of a particular night, a car accident with six teenage boys, one of whom had died. She remembers how hard it was to identify which of the teenagers had died because they all looked similar. She admired the swift and careful teamwork of every first responder on the scene to help the victims’ families.

Bauman talked about a tragic crash that left a young child paralyzed from the waist down. 

“I have four boys of my own, and they all play sports year-round,” Bauman said. “I’ve spent years watching them running up and down the football field, basketball court and around the bases. And because one person chose to drive after having too much to drink, that boy never got to do any of that.”

Ryckman recalled a beautiful, sunny day that he had to spend responding to a car wrapped around a tree where he watched a kid take his last breath.

“Who was this person going to be? Who is this person in our community?” Ryckman asked. “This person doesn’t have that opportunity now because of a moment of bad decision making.” 

Kendra Cristelli, director of Whatcom Support Officers, read next for Erica and Larry Weisman about their son Christopher, who died at the age of 20 in a vehicular accident just a block away from home.

“On January 29, 2013, my nightmare began when I was startled by the doorbell at 12:30 in the morning,” Kendra read for Erica. “Christopher was our only son … I felt like I no longer fit in this world. I was so quiet around the house with Chris gone.”

Funk spoke after the Weissman family.  “One day I went up to a crash and the person came up to me, he’s all road rashed, and he goes, ‘I need to thank you, you saved my life today,'” he said.

Funk had convinced the motorcyclist to purchase a full-face helmet after he wrote the man a ticket a few weeks prior. 

Following these chilling stories from the members of our community, every officer and deputy present turned on the lights of a great line of squad cars in front of the building and drove off to enforce a special emphasis on high risk driving in the community.

Everyone else at the event walked a six-block loop carrying candles with paper hearts attached to them.

Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, and Bellingham resident Brian Estes were instrumental in putting the event together. 

“Brian had been involved with this down in Seattle and he suggested that we do it here,” Dahl said. “He kind of spearheaded it the first year, and now it is this meaningful thing to the community.”

Target Zero is a project of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission working toward ending all traffic deaths and serious injuries, according to the official website.

Human error is responsible for 94% of traffic accidents, Dahl said. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

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