Sudden Impact

It was dark and slick when the accident occurred, but not nearly as dark and slick as it was when she tried to get to the bottom of it

The bang of the crash didn't wake me, but the piercing, high-pitched whir of a revving engine roused me to semiconsciousness. Three o'clock in the morning, Friday, November 20. As the revving stopped, I began to drift back under, victim to the migraine headache that had plagued me for the past 24 hours. But then my husband leaped to the window and peered down to the street. "The car's wrecked!" he cried with anguish. Stumbling after him in disbelief, I pulled on a shirt and pants, grabbed a reporter's notebook and a pen.

A few other apartment residents were already outside in the damp black air, where the street lights cast grayish halos. The road was wet, though rain was not falling at the time. With eyes fogged and head still groggy, I headed toward a red Nissan Sentra at the curb, thinking it was mine. Another car A a really damaged hulk A had rammed into the Sentra's left rear taillight following some violent impact. Staring and still trying to focus, I realized the Sentra I was looking at wasn't mine; it was a few years older. My red Sentra was the horribly damaged hulk behind it, hit somehow from the right rear. It had been parked alongside the curb, but now it was jutting halfway into the street. Nearly the entire back of the car had been demolished, the trunk lid stuck crazily up against the shattered rear window.

Our neighbor's daughter called from an open second-floor window: "The man who hit your car is in that black car, Kathy."

And there, maybe 30 feet to the north, in the middle of the street, sat a maroon A almost black A Honda Civic with its flashers on. I started toward it. "He tried to get away but his car stalled," commented another neighbor, one of the first on the scene. My hand began to shake as I uncapped the pen to write down the license plate number and make and model of the car.

A man was walking around the Honda to the driver's door. He appeared to be in his early twenties, with neatly cut and combed brown hair, a tight T-shirt tucked into jeans, and a chain around his neck. He didn't look drunk or drugged. "It's okay," he said quietly to me. "The police are on the way."

The police are on the way. Somehow that pacified me. Surely the police will take care of this mess. Then it began to drizzle, and the driver got back into his car. Instead of pursuing him for his insurance information, I walked back to our car to help my husband salvage some stuff from the trunk.

This wasn't the brightest thing to do, I now realize, but I was hardly alert, and didn't feel capable of talking to anyone anyway. The neighbors, though, had a lot to say. The two men who were first to run outside after the crash said they saw the man in the Honda trying to drive off, and they wanted the police to know. Both had called 911 and warned that the driver was trying to leave the scene; one gave the license plate number of the Honda.

Both of these neighbors, it turned out, also have had cars smashed while parked in the same place. Most people in our Miami Beach building A on Pine Tree Drive just above the 23rd Street intersection A parallel park along the road because there's no other parking nearby. But the street curves and dips slightly at that point, and a lot of careless drivers heading north on Pine Tree, especially when it rains, can't quite negotiate the curve and end up running into the parked cars.

Rick Hegarty, a 39-year-old computer programmer, has heard several bumps and crashes outside his second-floor window during the past year or so, but he had never gone downstairs to offer assistance. This time, though, "the thing really smelled," he said. "It was right outside the bedroom. We heard a big bang, and the instant we looked out the window we heard a screech and saw his car on the front pathway there. The front of the car was pointing to the street. Then he was revving and I knew he was trying to get away. I put on some pants and told my girlfriend to call the police."

At about the same time a downstairs neighbor had looked out to see the Honda "backing up like hell. You can see the tracks in the grass where he was backing up. And he was trying to drive off, but his car didn't make it." (This man A who I'll call Ben A didn't want his name used as part of this story.) By the time Ben and Hegarty got outside, the Honda had made it almost halfway up the block and then stalled in the middle of the street. "I got there and was kind of yelling at the guy," Hegarty recalled. "He said, 'I'm trying to get my car off the road.' And I thought that was really interesting because the last time I saw him, his car was ten feet off the road."

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