Life changes in an instant


Pat Haley - Contributing columnist



There’s no wind more welcome than the one that blows in every March for the college basketball fan eagerly awaiting the magic of March Madness, and the characters it carries along with it like confetti after a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

There hasn’t been a more bitter wind than the one that was blowing a couple weeks ago on snowy, dark Interstate 690 near Syracuse, New York for two men from very different backgrounds, brought together by fate, and a tragic auto accident that claimed one of their lives.

Jorge Jimenez, a jolly, sociable man with a ruddy face, was traveling with friends when they stopped to buy some Camel cigarettes at a local carryout just off the interstate.

After completing his purchase, Jimenez, who had only recently moved to Syracuse, slid into the passenger seat of the vehicle that 10 minutes later would lose control on the interstate and strike a reinforced guardrail, where it bounced and landed in the middle of the highway. The driver and two other passengers in the car opened their doors and stayed on the highway near the vehicle, but Jimenez decided to walk toward the side of the road.

It was a fateful decision.

Jim Boeheim, the head basketball coach for the Syracuse Orangemen, had left the Carrier Dome in Syracuse a couple of hours earlier after defeating the Louisville Cardinals. He met his wife and a couple of friends at a local restaurant to enjoy a late supper before heading to the freeway and home to his family.

It was about 11:30 p.m. and Boeheim who lived in a suburb of Syracuse, was tired and looking forward to getting out of the cold weather. The snow had fallen heavily throughout the day in central New York, and the slippery roads lingered.

Without warning he came upon the disabled vehicle sitting in the middle of the busy interstate. He swerved to avoid the car, but Boeheim’s SUV struck Jimenez, who was unexpectedly standing on the side of the road.

Jimenez was transported to Upstate University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Boeheim was devastated. He felt surreal. He began to tremble, his hands shook, and his thoughts commenced racing. Basketball was the furthest thing from his mind.

“This is something that will be with me for the rest of my life,” Boeheim later said. “Thursday it’s not going to be better. It’s not going to be better next week. It’s not going to be better next month. It’s not going to be better next year. A human life was taken. This is something that will be with me forever.”

“I can’t describe the feelings,” Boeheim said. “I don’t think I can make anyone understand who hasn’t been there. I don’t.”

I thought about Boeheim’s words for a long time.

Soldiers, law enforcement officers, and accident survivors know the delicate bond that binds them together as witnesses or participants in sudden death. Boeheim is correct.

There are no words to describe the finality of death, or to describe a person’s feelings who have directly been involved in the violent death of another human being.

During the beginning of my law enforcement career, I was involved in a deadly encounter during an apprehension of escapees and subsequent shootout that occurred in Wilmington.

Wilmington patrol officer Bob Stratton, relatively new to the police force, spotted the suspects’ vehicle and was planning to stop it near the intersection of North South Street and Xenia Avenue.

Stratton turned on his flashing lights. I arrived 30 seconds later. Stratton approached the escapees’ car as I pulled my gun. I was just 10 yards away.

I heard a single gunshot. Officer Stratton sprinted back toward his cruiser, firing four more gunshots in rapid succession from his revolver as he ran.

Then, as quickly as it began, the gunfire stopped.

We looked beyond us to see one of the escapees lying in the street bleeding from his wounds. He wasn’t responding and his breathing was very shallow. Within minutes he was pronounced dead at the scene.

The sight made my heart stand still. Forty-nine years later that moment remains frozen in time, etched in my mind.

I still look over at that spot on North South Street every time I pass by, and lament the image of gunfire, and the sudden, unexpected death of another human being due to violent circumstances. I will take that vivid memory to my grave.

My heart goes out to Jim Boeheim now, as it did for Bob Stratton years ago.

Boeheim’s words still resonate in my mind, “I don’t think I can make anyone understand who hasn’t been there. I don’t.”

Unfortunately, others have been there.

And we do understand.

Pat Haley is former Clinton County Commissioner and former Clinton County Sheriff.

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Pat Haley

Contributing columnist