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July 2nd, 2003 Taylor Clark | News Stories
 

The Vicious Cycle

The tragedy on Belmont brings a city together--sort of.

     
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IMAGE: chris lydgate
Tiny shards of broken glass still litter the pavement near the intersection of Southeast 42nd Avenue and Belmont Street, where a speeding van smashed into three cyclists last week in a fatal collision of alcohol, aluminum, flesh and bone.

The midnight crash catapulted musician Orion Satushek, 27, into the window of a parked Chevy Blazer and flung artist Angela Leazenby, 26, almost 400 feet from the impact. Both were pronounced dead at the scene. A third rider, Caroline Buchalter, 23, was critically injured and remains in intensive care.

Since the accident, Portlanders expressed their collective shock and grief through an impressive variety of tributes. On Wednesday, there was a press conference. On Thursday, a kinetic sculpture. On Friday, a ride and vigil, and on Sunday, a memorial gathering on Mount Tabor. Benefit concerts are in the works--see page 39 for information on Friday's Blackbird show.

Yet at the same time, the incident underscores how quickly personal tragedy can become public martyrdom--and how easily mourning can be transformed into rage.

By all accounts, none of the victims was a card-carrying member of Portland's increasingly muscular cycling culture. They were and are musicians and artists who unluckily took a pleasure ride at the same time that 49-year-old Lindsey Llaneza was driving westbound on Belmont Street with what court records describe as a blood-alcohol level of .224--almost three times the legal limit.

Satushek and Buchalter made up two-thirds of the Spooky Dance Band, a Portland rock trio with a devoted following. They met Leazenby, a visual artist, on tour in Oakland. She moved to Portland just a week before the accident.

The accident has galvanized Portland's two-wheeled factions in entirely divergent ways. On the more conservative side of the spectrum, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance hosted a press conference the day after the incident, stressing that the recent spate of cycling deaths doesn't mean Portland is a dangerous city for bicycles. (One week before, another Portland cyclist, Paul Hriskos, was also hit and killed by an allegedly drunk driver.)

"This isn't a cycling problem, it's a drunk-driving problem," the BTA's Catherine Ciarlo explained, citing statistics showing that the number of cyclists commuting to downtown Portland has tripled to 8,000 in the past 10 years, while the number of accidents has remained constant. "The more cyclists are on the road," she says, "the safer it becomes for all of them."

But where the BTA emphasized cooperation and safety (none of the victims wore helmets; only one had a working light), the several hundred participants in Friday's Critical Mass ride took a more aggressive stance. "STOP DRIVING," shouted posters advertising the ride, asking Portlanders to remember "all who have died beneath the tyranny of auto culture."

Milling around the North Park Blocks before the trip began, riders passed around fliers and stickers displaying Llaneza's face with the word "Murderer" printed in blood-red underneath.

The setting was a bizarre mixture of mayhem and sadness. Friends of the victims fought back tears while the unusually large Critical Mass crowd rained verbal abuse on their police escort.

"Why don't you go get some doughnuts and leave us alone?" one rider yelled, as the dozens of officers present struggled to rein in their tempers.

The jeers at the police echoed throughout the ride, as did the heckling of drivers, including one woman in a silver Volvo who was unwise enough to be talking on her cell phone.

"Your car is a lethal weapon!" shouted a female cyclist. "Jesus Christ--especially when you're on a cell phone!"

At the scene of the crash, the cyclists staged a stirring tribute to the victims, raising their bikes in the air and cheering. But after a moment of silence, several riders immediately brought their issues with the Portland police to the forefront again.

"This was supposed to be a memorial ride, and they screwed it up for us!" one woman shouted about the cops, standing on the very ground where the deadly crash occurred. "This is bullshit!"

"Don't come in here and try to get a feel-good story out of us!" one cyclist said after the altercation.

It was only at the memorial service that the true scope of the tragedy could be expressed without getting jammed in the gears of bicycle politics. The victims' friends and family shared their memories and pain. The atmosphere was not one of a funeral, but that of a wake, with anguish and laughter mixed together in a salute to Satushek and Leazenby.

"They were both kind, amazing people," says Larry Needham, the fourth cyclist at the scene of the accident, who narrowly escaped being hit.

 
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