Kalamazoo cycling tragedy scene like ‘a war zone’

Undersheriff recalls responding to scene where 5 cyclists were killed in June 2016

Kalamazoo cycling tragedy, Cooper Township, five bicyclists killed, Michigan State Police photos
The scene in Cooper Township after a pickup truck hit nine bicyclists on June 6, 3016, killing five of them. (Photo from Michigan State Police records)

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — When he got the call of a crash while leaving another scene, the Kalamazoo County undersheriff immediately knew it was big.

Undersheriff Pali Matyas recounted what it was like along Westnedge Avenue in Cooper Township where five bicyclist were killed and four others were injured on June 7, 2016 tragedy.

“The crime scene reminded me a lot of a war zone,” Matyas told 24 Hour News 8 Wednesday, the one-year anniversary of the crash. “There were literally bodies laying all over the place and they were all dead or injured. … It’s like somebody just dropped a mortar or hand grenade in the middle of a bunch of people and they were all just lying there in different stages of life and death.”

Kalamazoo Cycling Tragedy victims
Top, left to right: Debbie Bradley and Melissa Fevig-Hughes. Bottom, left to right: Tony Nelson, Larry Paulik and Suzanne Sippel.

Matyas said the anniversary brings the feelings of a difficult time in Kalamazoo County history. The community was still reeling from the fallout of a deadly shooting spree that terrified the Kalamazoo area a few months prior.

The scene of the cycling tragedy was among the worst that the seasoned law enforcement officer had seen.

“When you’re a first responder, your goal is to get out there and you want to save every last person that’s there,” Matyas explained. “But the reality of it hits that its not going to happen.”

After the seemingly back-to-back tragedies, Matyas was again amazed, he said. This time in a good way.

“The community took away something absolutely huge,” Matyas explained. “It just brought this community together… You can still feel it around town. You still get that sense.”

Kalamazoo Cycling Tragedy
Ghost bikes, flowers and a jersey mark the scene of the Kalamazoo cycling tragedy. (June 7, 2017)

Mates said the tragedy raised awareness about biker safety. In the past year, several municipalities in the surrounding area have put ordinances in place that require drivers to give bikers at least five feet of space.

He admits, however, that no law or ordinance would likely have helped the victims in the Kalamazoo cycling tragedy. Authorities say the driver of the pickup that careened into the cyclist had recently taken pain pills and muscle relaxers.

“In this particular situation, there’s not a darn thing these people could have done any different that was going to change the outcome,” Matyas said. “These people were doing what folks do in Kalamazoo County every day of the week and all times of the day and night. They got on their bicycles and they went for a ride and they weren’t doing a darn thing wrong.”

As hundreds gathered to “Finish the Ride” in honor of the victims on Wednesday, Matyas had a message for the families left behind.

“The whole community grieves with you. … Bad things happen to good people, then good things happen beyond that too,” he said. “We want to get to the good things again.”


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