Honoring cyclists 1 year after Kalamazoo tragedy

Five bicyclists killed in crash in Cooper Township on June 7, 2016

Kalamazoo cycling tragedy
Bicyclists assemble to "finish the ride" in honor of the victims of the Kalamazoo cycling tragedy. (June 7, 2017)


KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Wednesday marked one year since a pickup truck plowed into a group of bicyclists near Kalamazoo, killing five in what’s been called the deadliest bicycle-related crash in U.S. history.

The wreck happened on the evening of June 7, 2016 on Westnedge Avenue near Markin Glen Park in Cooper Township, north of Kalamazoo. Five members of a group called The Chain Gang were killed: Debbie Bradley, Melissa Fevig-Hughes, Tony Nelson, Larry Paulik and Suzanne Sippel. Four other members of the group were injured in the crash.

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.

“The crime scene reminded me a lot of a war zone and there were literally bodies laying all over the place and they were all dead or injured,” Kalamazoo County Undersheriff Pali Matyas recalled on Wednesday. “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.”

“They did such a phenomenal job that night. I can’t even imagine a different situation. So we’re so grateful,” crash survivor Jennifer Johnson said of the emergency responders who helped her and her fellow cyclists.

MEMORIAL MASS AND RIDES

Late Wednesday afternoon at St. Thomas More Catholic Student Parish in Kalamazoo — where Nelson and Paulik were parishioners — the priest offered a message of love at a memorial Mass for the victims.

At 6 p.m., two groups of bicyclists set out on memorial rides.

Kalamazoo cycling tragedy
Bicyclists assemble to “finish the ride” in honor of the victims of the Kalamazoo cycling tragedy. (June 7, 2017)

One group “finished the ride” that the members of The Chain Gang where on when the crash happened, riding from Kalamazoo to Plainwell and then returning. The other group rose to the site of the crash — where five ghost bikes still stand to honor those killed — and then returned.

The hundreds of riders were asked to donate $20 to go toward building a permanent memorial at the crash site.

Michigan State Police escorted the cyclists with lights flashing. All along the route, families came out to wave at the riders, some holding signs bearing supportive messages.

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

Among the riders was Cheryl White, who wiped away tears after she finished. She said she was hit by a car a couple of years ago.

“I’m still trying to get over my accident and the people that lost their lives and the people that survived, we know them,” she said. “It’s hard.”

THE SURVIVORS

All four survivors of the crash led the memorial ride.

“I think when we go by the crash site it’s going to be emotional thinking about who we lost,” Sheila Jeske said as she sat alongside her fellow survivors before the ride.

Kalamazoo Cycling Tragedy
The survivors of the Kalamazoo cycling tragedy. Left to right: Paul Runnels, Jennifer Johnson, Sheila Jeske and Paul Gobble. (June 7, 2017)

They said support from the community has been “tremendous” and “overwhelming.”

“There’s been a lot of good that’s come out of what we’ve been through and the way we’ve gone through it,” survivor Paul Gobble said.

The survivors have spent the last year recovering.

“You don’t really think six months or a year ahead. You’re going week to week, just trying to improve as you go along,” survivor Paul Runnels said.

“I think we’re all pretty motivated to get back to our preinjury performance and physical abilities and so we all have a lot of inner drive to get back to doing the things that we loved doing before,” Johnson said.

“It’s a real exercise in making myself remember what’s good and what’s whole, what we have survived and what we have retained and kept strong,” Gobble said.

THE SUSPECT

Charles Pickett Jr. appears in court for a preliminary hearing. (Nov. 7, 2016)

The driver who police say crashed into the cyclists, Charles Pickett Jr., is awaiting trial on five counts of second-degree murder, as well as charges of operating while under the influence of drugs. Police say he took pain pills and muscle relaxers before the crash.

He is planning to plead insanity.

–24 Hour News 8’s Sarah Hurwitz contributed to this report.

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