Survivor: Kzoo cycling tragedy ‘really didn’t have to happen’

Paul Runnels
Paul Runnels reflects on the Kalamazoo cycling tragedy a year later, near a makeshift memorial for the victims.

COOPER TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — One year after a man plowed his truck through a group of Kalamazoo area bicyclists, killing five riders and seriously injuring four others, hundreds of people are expected to “finish the ride” they started.

The finish the ride memorial event begins Wednesday at 6 p.m. – the same time The Chain Gang bicycle club started their 28-mile route last year.

Paul Runnels, 66, was one of four cyclists who survived the Cooper Township crash, but were seriously injured.

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)

Doctors listed him in critical condition last June and he spent about five weeks in the hospital.

“This is an event that really didn’t have to happen,” Runnels told 24 Hour News 8 this week.

He said that the past year of recovery has been busy as he continues physical therapy and trying to work towards a sense of normalcy. The longtime cyclist also has another surgery ahead of him.

Runnels’ injuries from the crash have forced him to give up a favorite pastime: running.

“It gives me an opportunity to get away from this and not let this particular event be who I am,” he said. “It certainly is part of me, but it doesn’t have to be who I am.”

Runnels doesn’t like to dwell on the night of the crash. Instead, he focuses on the wave of support that followed and the strength of friends, family, and the Kalamazoo area he can rely on.

“I think it’s not so much the tragedy itself, because I don’t remember that. I learned about that as a third person. It’s really the support that came from the community,” he said.

>>Inside Complete coverage of the Kalamazoo cycling tragedy

Mark Rose founded The Chain Gang in 1999 and also organized the Wednesday’s finish the ride event.

Mark Glen Park in Cooper Township remembering the victims of the June 7, 2016 Kalamazoo cycling tragedy when five riders were killed and four others were seriously injured. (June 6, 2017)

Rose is much more than an organizer; he’s been a friend to many of the victims who were a part of The Chain Gang.

“It’s still very difficult,” Rose said. “This was certainly not an accident. We know accidents happen, but this was a tragedy that never should’ve happened and we hope the likes of anything like this never happens again.”

Rose says the four crash survivors will lead Wednesday’s memorial ride. Those who would like to participate are asked to register online and donate $20.

Funds raised will be used to build a memorial at the crash site.

Ghost bikes
Five new ghost bikes sit near Markin Glen Park in Cooper Township in honor of the five cyclists killed in the June 7, 2016 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 new tribute will sit across the street from the temporary one near Markin Glen Park, according to Rose. There will be seats at the permanent memorial where people can remember the victims of the crash.

This week, five white ghost bikes were added to the temporary memorial in honor of those killed: Debbie Bradley, Melissa Fevig-Hughes, Tony Nelson, Larry Paulik and Suzanne Sippel.

Cyclists who participate in Wednesday’s memorial bike ride will silently pass the current memorial along the crash site. There will be a 5 p.m. mass before Wednesday’s ride at St. Thomas More Catholic Parish.