Yesterday I was out for my daily walk along Palisade Avenue in Jersey City when I heard sounds 50 yards ahead of me I had never experienced before: Tires screeching on asphalt; a thump; crushing metal. Ahead of me people leapt out of their cars and from their porches. A cop on his lunch hour bolted from his parked cruiser with a sandwich still in his hand.


Three nurses on a smoking break flicked their cigarettes in the gutter and ran into the middle of the street.

As I approached, a crowd of 30 onlookers gathered on both sides of Palisade Avenue, an infamous, and deadly street in the Jersey City Heights.

An Ambulette and a small grey car were entangled in the middle of the street. It looked like the Ambulette was trying to turn against traffic into the hospital and the grey car did not react fast enough to slow down enough to avoid an accident.

When I saw what appeared to be a pool of blood trickling from the center of the crushed metal I vowed not to look and to respect the process of the professionals who were tending the situation. I kept my eyes pinned on the sidewalk in front of me.

All around me people were on their cell phones calling 911 and, as awful as it sounds now, I couldn’t help but think then that if you were going to be in an accident, the best place to have it happen was 10 feet away from the Christ Hospital Emergency Department entrance.

I soldiered onward with my walk while the sound of sirens rose behind me.

I returned to the scene a half hour later on my way back home and, while the crowd has dissipated a bit, there were those who stood along the sidewalk shaking their heads and gawking. Snippets of conversation floated out to ears and into cell phones…

“A little girl.”

“…Crossed too early.”

“Crushed between….”

“Died on impact.”

I still refused to look at the center of the accident where the two Fire Department trucks and four uniformed police officers were beginning to gather, and while I admired them for doing a job I would never want, I could not defer a rising fury at the onlookers who were still standing around not helping, not moving along, but seeming to take a grotesque delight in slaking a bloodthirst from the body of a
child pinned dead in the street.

30 Comments

  1. Unfortunately, I think, it’s a trend that will continue to grow of the onlookers and/or the people who want to try to help but don’t know anything about medical care which as an end result could do more harm to the patient. In essence if the person/persons are
    A. Not related or know the person/persons or
    B. Not some sort of emergency/medical person
    then they should just stand back but better yet be on your way because it’s not a freak show to get your jollies off. It just amazes me at how others will stand/sit their grossly interested in what is going on and want to be the first person to tell everybody and their mother I saw someone die.

  2. Hi hterry —
    Excellent comment.
    I think onlookers find accidents a form of “street entertainment.”
    Somehow the line between reality and fantasy has become blurred and the result is to stare as the mind tries to determine the difference between real blood and stage blood.
    I know a lot of those people yesterday could not believe their eyes. I want to know why they needed to ask their eyes to make that determination in the first place when the obvious appropriate behavior was to look away to honor private suffering once the first responders arrived.

  3. That’s exactly my thought as well. How would they feel if everybody tried to get in closer to look at them if they were in that situation. They wouldn’t plain and simple so why must they do that to someone else?
    What’s that old adage, do unto others…

  4. we as humans are visually attracted to anything that is different. i spent 10 weeks in a wheelchair with a broken foot — when i went out i had a newborn baby in a sling, a toddler on my lap, and a support worker pushing me. oh the wonderful stares that i got — long ones, they followed me, many would catch my eye, and yet continue to stare, jaws hanging.
    now, seeing a new mom in a wheelchair — that’s very minor, compared to such a gruesome accident that you witnessed. most people would have difficulties diverting their eyes.
    the difference between the ones who stare and the ones who walk by is 1. manners / civility (we all know it is not polite to stare) 2. lack of selfishness (you want to stare, but you know that the other person won’t appreciate it) 3. you find the scene unbearable to look it.

  5. Your comment makes a lot of sense, anna.
    My wife is Deaf so when we’re out we use sign language to communicate and EVERYONE stares and it makes me crazy.
    My wife says the only appropriate staring comes from young children because they’ve never seen sign language before and they are naturally curious but the adults with them have no excuse to stare open-mouthed.

  6. I hate gawkers like that, especially at wrecks or scenes of tragedy. George Carlin has done a sketch before when he says he asks the officer to please bring the body closer so his wife can get a better look.
    It seems like people do just about everything but ask that. I’m surprise someone didn’t have a camera phone taking pictures. Perhaps they could include the incident in one of those pathetic FOX specials.
    Ok, ok, I need to stop before I really start ranting!

  7. Hey Carler!
    I love George Carlin. He’s one of the smartest guys around and you can’t be that funny if you aren’t brilliant. I love what he said about bringing the body closer.
    You know there probably were people there taking video via their cellphones. Ugh. How ugly.

  8. i would like to make a different case for the ASL, but i don’t know if i will be successful.
    ASL is so beautiful; i am not at all fluent, but I taught simple signs to my daughter when she was a baby, and she started signing before she could talk, at 11 months.
    i am definitely conscsious of not ‘staring’, but i do glance, i find it beautiful, almost mesmerising.
    i think the issue here is that ASL is perceived as a sign of disability, and thus the reaction. *your* reaction, as well. if you were speaking Italian or French and someone listened in with a smile (or even with an open mouth), you would probably smile back. many people find foreign languages pleasant to listen to.
    and *my* reaction as well — i am very aware that i might be perceived unfavourably, that my friendly smile my be perceived as mockery or judgement. honestly, i do not care what people think of me, but i would not want to offend just because i like watching ASL. i would like to believe that noone thought i was ‘staring open-mouthed’, because i never did, but as i said, i do glance, occasionally.
    i was also debating with myself whether to point an ASL speaking couple to my daughter in public — to show her that they too speak ASL, and how beautiful it is.
    of course an obvious solution is to learn more ASL myself, to go beyound the 100 or so signs that i know, so that i would be able to explain myself in public. i have just started signing with my 7 months old, and maybe this time we will progress towards grammar and syntax as well.
    as a society we are very prejudiced against disabilities, including deafness, and yes, many would just stare. what am i saying, we are prejudiced against anything that is different from what we are used to, from what we are comfortable with.
    i often wonder what my reaction should be if someone stare at me for lets say, breastfeeding in public — trying to educate, be nice and polite, or just stare back and make them feel that they are ignorant idiots. now, as my daughter is older and very aware, i have to educate, i think, for her sake.
    but i find that because of my own bias — i am always on guard for anyone who might make an unfavorable comment — i probably misinterpret friendly glances as unfriendly stares.

  9. Hi anna —
    Well, my take on the “ASL staring” is that if you don’t understand the conversation you are using us for your own bemusement or entertainment — in a distant, but similar vein to gawking death on the street because a private moment in public is being taken in by those who are not part of the moment — and it is bothersome to have people drilling their eyes into you just because they have nothing better to do on a train than watch us signing.
    Now if you know ASL and you are able to follow along with the conversation — that’s fair — because that’s the same thing as being overheard in a spoken conversation and there are many times when we will confront our “stare-ers” and ask them in ASL if they are understanding us or not and the fact that they’ve been “caught” being rude usually turns their head away from us enough so the staring stops.
    My wife enjoys it when kids come up to her and stare at her and she will engage them. She likes it that the children are not scared of her or the signing and that they are brave enough to want to watch and learn something new.
    We are writing a Baby Signs book together right now — in addition to the Hand Jive book we are writing for Barnes and Noble — and we will have more information on all of that soon. 🙂

  10. a car ahead of us blocked our view when the motorcyclist got run over and was beheaded.
    talk about trama. It’s sad to say i see an accident now and death and I feel nothing.
    I’ve accepted it as a part of life.

  11. I travel 40 miles each way to work and have seen my fair share of fender benders. A couple of days after Christmas, though, I crested the major grade of my highway and saw a thick column of black smoke towering into the air.
    A big rig had jackknifed off the road and caught on fire. As I passed it, I slowed down. Several people were parked along the side of the road, approaching the rig. The cab was totally engulfed in flames. I thought, “Should I pull over and help?”
    Then someone honked at me. I decided not to because there was nothing I could do. If the driver were still in that rig, he was dead. So I went home with a sick feeling in my stomach. The next day, I saw a cross posted at the crash site. I felt very bad for his family.
    ——————————————————————————————
    That girl’s death was horrible, but it sounded quick. I’m glad to hear that she didn’t suffer. As for the onlookers, that’s typical. We all have a fear/fascination with death. Is that an excuse to stand there and gawk? Of course not. You did the decent thing, David.

  12. I, too, think that violence and gore is too often used as entertainment. I hate how callous our society has become.
    I would hope, though, that many of those onlookers weren’t gawking for the entertainment factor — my first thought was that this is how some people deal with grief; they need to talk and share in order to understand what happened, they can’t just close themselves off to what they witnessed.
    Playing devil’s advocate a bit — do you think that some of the gawkers looked at you and wondered how *you* could be so callous, just walking by as though nothing had happened?
    I do admire that your heart is definitely in the right place, but I just wonder if these other people’s were, too. Don’t mean to offend; just recently found your blog and I love it. 🙂

  13. Hi Beth —
    It’s nice to have you here. Your perspective is interesting and causes pause.
    I understand the need to deal with the grief but I don’t understand the need to stare at the scene for a half an hour.
    Sure, they may be in shock as well after witnessing such a horrible thing, but I would suggest the way to begin to deal with that grief would be to turn away and try to move on from the experience instead of hanging around the scene of the crime.
    I don’t think the gawkers noticed me a bit 🙂 but if they did, and if they felt I was not being human by stopping and standing there with them, I would gently argue it is more callous to stare and do nothing than to move along to make way for the first responders.
    I like how you think Beth, and I hope to have you around here in the future! 🙂

  14. ARE THERE NO FOOT BRIDGES OR PEDESTRIAN BRIDGES FOR PEDESTRIANS TO CROSS EXPRESS ROADS TO PREVENT TERRIBLE ACCIDENTS LIKE THAT.
    Now what happens to all the hopes and dreams of that innocent girl.
    Finis?

  15. Hi Osinachi —
    It is good to hear from you again!
    Pedestrian bridges are rare, but wonderful things on the East Coast if you can find them. They are expensive to build. Older cities have few bridges. Newer cities out West have more of them.
    Jersey City has a beautiful new pedestrian bridge near Saint Peter’s College that Saint Peter’s College mostly paid for to bridge what is basically a busy highway:
    http://www.spc.edu/tour/campus/bridge.php
    The students used to have to run for their lives across that highway. One side of the highway held the classroom buildings while the other side held the dormitories. Students had to run across that highway several times a day.
    The area of yesterday’s accident is particularly dangerous. A lot of ambulances go in and out of the hospital but there is no traffic light to direct traffic. So you have speeding ambulances that brake hard to make the turn into the hospital.
    Two elderly women and I were almost run over last Fall when a Hummer limo steered toward us on the sidewalk to try to avoid a turning ambulance.
    The women froze.
    I leapt over a hedge onto a lawn.
    There was a tree that stopped the limo, but if it hadn’t, the elderly women would have met the same fate as the young girl yesterday: Finis.

  16. Unfortunatly the more horrific the accident, the larger the crowd. That said, my dad, a paramedic for 26 years, complains regularly about people who stand around at accidents and don’t get out of the way. More than once he has had a person die on him due to cars/people in the way of getting the person to the hospital. Such a shame that this little girl died.

  17. Cyber-Pope – I wasn’t sure I should let your comment out of moderation but your blog is funny and your comment appears like you read my post so you aren’t comment Spamming so, welcome! 🙂
    Jen W. – Aw, gee, that’s a rough story about your dad. There should be some kind of federal law against interfering with the work of first responders. It sickens me!

  18. Sorry, have to hijack these comments for a second…my town just opened up a new 8 lane cable stay bridge down here in Charleston which includes a bike path AND a walkers path WITH benches 🙂
    One of our employees made a site about it. http://monitor.admin.musc.edu/~cfs/bridge/
    ====
    Jen, that is so true and yet people still refuse to get the heck out of the way. I’ve seen it before and I’ll see it again I’m sure.

  19. Hi Shizgirl —
    Jersey City is a rough and strange town. The incident did not make the newspaper and I find that to be an ordinary happening. So much stuff happens were there isn’t room to print it all. We don’t have a local Jersey City television newscast. There were no reporters. No television cameras. That day was just another day in Jersey City.

  20. I wish this was a sign of how callous our society has become. Unfortunately, it’s a sign of how callous society has always been.
    In front of me I have a book written for pilots about aviation disasters. The author is writing for an audience which has a vested interest in safety – if you know the mistakes pilots have made in the past, you can recognize them in yourself and hopefully avoid them.
    One of the accidents discussed is the 1967 accident where a C-5 Argonaut with an undiagnosed fuel gauge problem crashed into an empty area near central Stockport, UK. There’s a picture of the area shortly after the accident; in the foreground, police, fire, and other officials are sorting through the wreckage. In the background, there are hundreds if not thousands of people taking up every possible square inch of space, on roofs, on the ground, on the top of cars. They’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder, just staring at the disaster.
    A few days ago I was looking through the Samuel Pepys Diary online. The diary has links to everything from maps to biographies of the men and women Pepys mentions to old drawings. One drawing was of a hanging at Tyburn in London in the 1660s. There were over 100,000 spectators.